The Vital Role of Tertiary Education

Post-16 education and training are vital to individual opportunity and to the green economic growth Wales needs if it is to match the ambition of the Well-being of Future Generations Act. Wales has a proud tradition of valuing learning and knowledge for what they are, not just for what they contribute. The target of 50% engagement in Higher Education (HE) was, admittedly, an arbitrary one but Wales should not countenance a theatrical abandonment of it as is proposed in England, nor introduce a crude valuation of degrees by the incomes of their graduates. But critically, post-16 education must deliver skills and employability for learners and the economy.

The post-16 system was not fully fit for purpose before the Coronavirus pandemic. If in its skills role the tertiary system does not prepare people to get good jobs, why would we heavily invest money and hopes in it? It should be closely aligned with the current – and future – labour markets. This is difficult to achieve as it is not planned, managed, and funded as a single system. Recognising that, the Welsh Government is creating a new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (due in 2022). Its task will be to drive greater integration and genuinely seamless pathways all the way from school to apprenticeships, vocational courses, and degrees – and to manage crucial shifts in emphasis.

Both academically driven courses and learner choice are important, but a partial rebalancing is needed. Higher (HE) and further (FE) education are both substantially driven and funded via learner choice of courses of a standard length. That works in HE for many undergraduate degrees, but moving the Welsh economy into the industries of the future, in a rapidly changing world, requires more innovative programmes, often of different lengths and modes of delivery, co-designed with employers, trades unions and learners –  including adult, in-work, learners. The Commission will need to bring parts of higher education into closer alignment with labour markets – and actively support some innovative but risky programmes designed to support new economic opportunities.

In the case of FE, a key task will be to ensure greater priority, voice, and prestige for vocational routes. Initial education and training to Level 3 and above is critical for individuals and economic growth. The pace of economic change also demands a much stronger focus on re-skilling and up-skilling. Learners and employers need far more part-time and in-work training opportunities.

But FE needs to be far more closely aligned with labour market opportunities; it is too driven by user choice of qualifications that adjust too slowly to market demand. Employers routinely say FE and many qualifications fail to deliver what they are looking for; but alignment is a two-way street. The answer is to give employers more opportunity – and responsibility – for co-designing programmes around work-based experiential learning focused on delivering needed skills not teaching to existing qualifications. There are valuable examples around Wales that need to be built upon.

Greater alignment with the labour market of the future requires institutional champions who are at the cutting edge of key growth industries; staff whose skills and understanding are fully up to date; and facilities at industry standard. Highly adept human resource strategies are required to find and deliver those champions and appropriately skilled staff.

The same applies to policy teams in government. Growth policies for the financial services or creative industries cannot be driven by people who lack deep knowledge and extensive contacts. Perhaps the Welsh public services as a whole need a talent scouting office, similar to those in some of the fast-growing world economies, to refresh its policy workforce.

National policies are necessary but not sufficient. Aligning skills, markets, and economic growth opportunities must be nuanced locally. The Regional Skills Partnerships and the recently created regional economic development teams in the Department for Economy and Transport must both be strengthened to be fleet-of-foot, flexible, and responsive. And excellent careers advice is crucial; Careers Wales also needs to be strengthened.

The government’s planned policy and structural changes are good news, but in the Coronavirus pandemic time is not on our side. A recession looms with the OECD forecasting huge rises in unemployment and a sharp reduction in apprenticeships. The young – and the Welsh economy – will be hit hardest. Evidence from past recessions is unequivocal: people who fail to get jobs as they enter the workforce have lower incomes and skills even decades later.

Our policies must mitigate long-term damage to individuals and the economy. Imaginative job creation programmes matched by training opportunities that enhance skills and employability are essential: for example, a Green Corps offering young people jobs, training and progression routes. The Economic Contract and the financial support given to business during the pandemic should be used to maximise supportive business practices. But Wales is dependent on decisions made in London and the summer mini-budget was not a ray of sunshine. Wales has to do all that is within its powers to avoid the threat of a “lost generation”; it is the most urgent task in hand.