Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Time to rally round FE like never before

Politicians across the divide can be accused of using education as a political football, and as the new report from the Gatsby Foundation shows, this government is no different.

Obsessed with media headlines and sycophantic applause from some sector organisations, politicians for too long have chased after the university headlines they so desperately crave, and now their new fascination is apprenticeships

The problem seems to be that the departments responsible for delivering education in our country (there is more than one and this is half the problem) are unable to multitask.

One of the best ways of ensuring our workforce is well trained is to give them the options they need to succeed, but what lies ahead is a worrying forced choice of undergraduate degree or a low-level apprenticeship. It is because of this that everything in between is being squeezed out of our education system. So keen are the Tories to fund apprenticeships, and to maintain their hugely expensive tuition fee system, they have become completely blind to the hugely important diversity of education in Britain.

As vice-president of the National Union of Students I have met too many people that have been failed by our education system, too many people who were not given the right options at the beginning. But I have also met hundreds of people who did not go to university, or even do an apprenticeship, who have gone on to be hugely successful in their chosen careers – most of the recipients of adult education.

My point here is that you do not get gold standard education by offering a monotonous choice simply between university and apprenticeship. You achieve gold standard when the education system adapts to the needs of learners, not when learners adapt to the needs of an education system. Moreover, in a world where we expect people to change careers 10 times over, it makes no economic sense to slash the reskilling provision that many people will inevitably rely on later on in life.

Sadly, as this report shows, it is getting near crunch time. Colleges that are hugely reliant on adult education funding are becoming crippled by financial burdens they just cannot meet. Now that this money is drying up thousands of courses in colleges are closing, the options offered to those most in need are shrinking, and the providers themselves at the point of bankruptcy.

But it does not have to be this way. We do not have to accept that nothing else but apprenticeships or university will do. We do not have to accept that school sixth forms should get more funding per head than any other post-16 provider. And we certainly do not have to accept that education ends at 21 with no prospect of further learning.

We are the only party that understands that post-16 education is so much more than A-levels in Classics or an apprenticeship in plumbing. It is time for those on the Labour benches to show it and rally round further education like they never have done before.


Joe Vinson is vice-president (further education) of the National Union of Students. He tweets @JoeVinson

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Joe Vinson

is a former vice-president at the National Union of Students, serving simultaneously as the NUS group leader of Labour Students. He is also a former councillor. He tweets @JoeVinson


  • You might not be old enough to remember the introduction of university tuition fees (only in England, of course), but it was a Labour government that was responsible for that idiotic piece of legislation, so Blair and his regime have as much ‘ownership’ of tuition fees as the present government.

  • This is a welcome call, although the incredible absence of understanding and neglect by liberal social democrats across the decades is a contributor to our current demise.

    Built into the Blairist Labour establishment view of the world has been a complete misapprehension of ‘real’ education, education, education needs. So totally absorbed in a (personal) growth view of education was this establishment that they allowed and encouraged the demise of technical education. In their snobbish view all Higher Education Colleges had to become Universities and all Higher National Diplomas had to be padded so that they can be degrees. With so many of recent Labour MPs only knowing University degree study they contributed so much to the undermining of much of what was best in the post war in technical and more importantly now technological education.

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