Column: We must end the neglect and underfunding of our further education sector

EVERYWHERE you turn at the moment it seems Brexit has become all-encompassing, but it is vital for our economy that the Government does not take its eye off the domestic agenda, and education and skills in particular.

In a world where automation is becoming increasingly important, it is likely that obtaining new – and higher – skill levels will be crucial.

And it is only education that can prepare us for a world that is more dynamic, fluid and competitive. The most demanding of human skills – such as problem solving and creative thinking – only a college or university can teach.

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Amid the last three years, it may have escaped the attention of some that last year the PM announced a major review of post-18 education. This has been described by some as the tuition fees review but in fact its scope is much wider.

The Government’s declared ambition is a system which better joins academic and technical education – one the CBI shares. However, as an organisation representing the employers of Yorkshire, and the wider UK, we have our own strong views on what the Government should prioritise.

It is vital the education system must become more flexible to enable people to continue learning throughout their careers, not just when they are young.

Often companies succeed because they help their people evolve through education. Colleges serve these firms brilliantly through running tailored courses.

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It is a sad truth that our colleges have not always been given the consideration or recognition they deserve. As a national resource, they’ve been underestimated. Historically, they’ve been underfunded. Politically, they’ve been neglected. And post-Brexit – where education is a rare homegrown source of strength – we shouldn’t be robbing Peter to pay Paul.

We must now start to ask whether colleges could have a new role to play. Whether the Government should give people an entitlement to an extra qualification between an A-level and a degree. An apprenticeship for example, or a technical course based at a college.

It could be a year when different backgrounds come together and learn skills they might not otherwise. It could be a profound shift in favour of a higher-skilled economy. Get it right and our colleges might find their roles better recognised and understood.

And when it comes to universities, what if they, too, could offer the same kind of flexible service as many of our colleges? The Government should also take the idea of flexible university courses seriously, along with funding to support them.

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On the subject of universities, one issue which often divides opinion is fees. The CBI is clear that without somehow replacing lost funding, a cut in fees would do profound harm to our universities, students and economy.

There are areas in which our country punches far, far above its weight. But just as impressive as any of these is our university sector. Four of the world’s top 10 universities are British and many more are close behind.

Not only do our universities educate people to the highest levels, but they are also some of our biggest regional employers, supporters of new businesses and incomparable vehicles of soft power.

Our universities are a precious national asset. They should be protected and nurtured. A cut in tuition fees would be a gross abrogation of responsibility.

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Firms understand the politics around tuition fees, but they have a message. Focus on the facts. Our tuition fees system isn’t perfect and the cost of living while studying can be a challenge. But the current system helps make university accessible to everyone, including students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

England now has greater participation in university among young people from poorer backgrounds than at any time in history. Yet there’s a real risk here. If politicians fan the flames of fear about the cost of university, they could end up deterring the very people who could most benefit from university.

What business wants to see happen now is that – once we get Brexit out of the way – we must end the neglect and underfunding of our further education sector, and consider how we can make the very best use of our superb colleges and universities.

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