What does the Journey to a Million mean for lifelong learning?

Nichola Hay MBE, Chair of the Board, Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP)

With a million people expected to apply to higher education each year by 2030, there will be huge challenges and opportunities involved in managing student choice and progression. These challenges and opportunities won’t just be limited to universities either, and we are delighted to join the Journey to a Million essay collection exploring how that growth will impact training providers.

Each year, there are huge numbers of people who are considering the next steps for developing their skills. A good deal of these will be school or college leavers, but others will be looking to upskill or retrain later in life. There will naturally be a focus on what this means for our universities and that impact is covered extensively elsewhere in this collection of essays. However, many looking to access learning will not see a traditional three-year degree as their preferred next step. There will be potential learners who are squeezed out of studying at university due to an extra demand for places that higher education institutions aren’t able to meet.

If we are to avoid failing these two groups, we will need to ensure they are able to take the right steps for their individual circumstances and career goals. That needs a skills sector that is able to provide extensive learner choice. We will also need to help ensure school leavers and career changers have the basic skills levels they need to take those next steps and empower learners to understand and access the routes that are available to them.

Choice — and proper funding — drives availability

For those seeking an alternative to the traditional university experience, there are plenty of options available. An apprenticeship, a higher technical qualification (HTQ) or other forms of high-quality skills training can lead to immensely better career prospects. Some will also want to consider whether a degree apprenticeship is an option that suits them. These are increasingly popular and enable people to gain a full undergraduate or master’s degree while working by spending about 20% of their time studying and 80% working. 

A modern economy needs a wide range of technical pathways that are available to school and colleges leavers, and those looking to retrain later in life. Given rising costs and economic uncertainty, that needs urgent government intervention. For too long, we’ve had a situation where government funding rates for qualifications do not reflect the actual cost of delivery — partly because those rates aren’t regularly reviewed. That situation has been made more acute with inflation rates not seen for a generation. The Learning and Work Institute have estimated this will result in £850m of skills funding being lost over the next three years.i Reviewing funding rates at least every two years will go a long way to reversing these losses.

In the long term, improving the availability of technical qualifications requires a system where learner and employer choice is prioritised. The Apprenticeship Levy has been a successful way in which that kind of choice has resulted in extra investment in training. Another step forward should be taken by introducing individual skills accounts to enhance learner choice. This would put power in the hands of learners to decide their own training needs — and who provides those needs — by making funding available regardless of age or level of study. This would facilitate greater choice and ownership of lifelong learning, with the ability for different parties to contribute towards skills investment. 

People must be supported throughout their working lives

As well as ensuring there are pathways open to people, we also need to ensure they are available right through people’s lives so they’re ready either for work or their next step in education. Unfortunately, too many young people leave school without the basic skills they need. This has an impact on their ability to take the next step — whether that’s an academic pathway or through work-based learning. Overall, an estimated 9 million working-age adults in England have low basic skills in literacy or numeracy and we need to invest more in reducing that number.ii 

Further education providers play a fundamental role in delivering basic, work-ready qualifications. Yet currently, their ability to do so is hampered by a lack of investment in functional skills (such as maths, English and digital) and the Adult Education Budget (AEB). Funding rates for functional skills within an apprenticeship has not been reviewed since 2014 — and remains around half the amount of funding available for delivery in classrooms. This means that unfortunately, many providers cannot deliver functional skills without incurring a loss. Furthermore, the adult education budget (AEB) has fallen by half in the last decade. These are courses specifically designed to give adults an opportunity to gain new skills and knowledge to enhance their employment and education prospects. Both of these situations need to be addressed urgently.

We must go further on the Lifetime Skills Guarantee too. The government plan to give adults access to a loan entitlement equivalent to four years of study at levels 4 to 6 by 2025 as part of that Lifetime Skills Guarantee. AELP were delighted with this decision — we have long championed mechanisms to move away from an institution-led approach towards a demand-led system — one which empowers learners and employers to make choices which suit their own needs. However, I would like to see the incoming Department for Education ministers show some real ambition on this front by expanding this entitlement to level 2 and 3 adult learners too. That really would open up educational opportunities to people who would gain huge benefit from extra training at various stages throughout their working life. 

Improving access and understanding of non-academic pathways

Given the complex nature of the country’s skills system, more needs to be done to support learners in making the right choice for them. That has two aspects: they need to know what options are open to them, and how they can access them. That starts with giving better careers, information and guidance (CIAG) to young people before they leave school.

There is currently a statutory requirement for schools to provide opportunities for providers of technical education and apprenticeships to talk to year 8-13 pupils to discuss their education and training options. The rules around this are also being strengthened following the introduction of The Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 which we welcome. Ultimately, we believe each pupil should receive at least two careers meetings per year, involving a range of further education providers. This would result in a shift in focus by ensuring CIAG sessions don’t just focus on traditional academic routes. 

Ensuring potential learners know how to access vocational pathways is important too. According to UCAS’s report Where Next: Improving the journey to becoming an apprentice, over half of students looking to apply to higher education in 2022 were interested in apprenticeships, but found it difficult to access relevant information.iii This highlights the need for potential students to be able to view academic and non-academic pathways in a single location. That’s why we were delighted to recently meet UCAS to see their ground-breaking work which supports employers and providers to find the right apprenticeship candidates. Accessing apprenticeships can be a complicated journey for candidates so we fully support UCAS’s work in this area.

Educational opportunities at all ages and for all levels

The continuing growth in numbers applying to university will need a government response that is able to adapt to the need to support a growing skills sector that caters for those who choose not to take on a traditional three-year degree, and those who miss out on a university place. Given the growth in demand from those looking for training in later life, there will need to be skills and employment programmes available for people of all ages and at every level of study. That requires a sector that is properly funded— but that people know what options are open to them and, crucially, how they can access them. 

iLearning and Work Institute, (June 2022), Briefing note: The impact of higher inflation on skills budgets in England.

iiOECD (2020), Raising the Basic Skills of Workers in England, United Kingdom.

iiiUCAS (2021), Where next? Improving the journey to becoming an apprentice.

Nichola Hay MBE

Chair of the Board, Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP)

Nichola Hay has worked in the Further Education sector for over 25 years. She is one of the founding directors of Outsource Training and Development, which was acquired by Seetec Group in 2016. She stayed with the business to support the integration into Seetec Outsource Training. Nichola then joined the Executive Board of Estio Training as the Chief Operating Officer, a specialist provider of digital and tech apprenticeships.

In Oct 21 Estio Training was acquired by BPP Education Group, a global leader in professional and vocational education. In November 22 Nichola moved across to join the senior leadership team as the Director of Apprenticeship Strategy and Policy for the group.

In addition to her role at BPP, she chairs the board of Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), AELP London Chair and is a member of the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) Skills for Londoners Board. Nichola is also a member of the Aviation Industry Skills Board (AISB) and takes an active role in 14-19 strategic groups, policy groups and committees.

Nichola passionately believes in the power of apprenticeships. As a result, she was recognised for her services to apprenticeships and skills in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2021 New Year Honours List, where she was awarded an MBE.