On Friday 22nd January the government released their new white paper on “Skills for Jobs”, which proposes shaking up the post 18 education system in the UK and incorporating a number of the Augar report recommendations made in 2019. How do we think this will affect the professional accountancy education sector?
The key information, plans and objectives included in the 80 page long white paper can be summarised as follows:
- There is a clear continuation of the belief that employers should remain at the heart of skills training – setting the “skills demand” for the future. The plan to enable this further is to invest in regional hubs with FE colleges and ITPs (independent training providers) creating “learning business centres” that act as skills development hubs between education and employers.
- A real focus on L4 and L5 technical qualifications being genuine alternatives to a university degree – with this being backed up by more information regarding funding, which is acknowledged to need reforming and simplifying.
- Whilst the paper is written very much from an FE college point of view, the AELP (ITP trade organisation) has committed to ensure that our voice is heard.
Closing the gap
The white paper sets out the key skills gaps in healthcare, social care, engineering, and “technicians” – but that FE colleges are not able to meet this demand due to challenges with the funding models currently in place. Local skills improvement plans (LSIPs) will bring together employers, colleges, providers and other stakeholders to set out what changes are required to address these gaps.
This approach presumes that the lens through which skills development should be examined is “local”. I would counter that the lens of sector specific trailblazer groups, led by employers and industry experts, makes a lot more sense to determine the skills development needs across entire sectors, as opposed to 50 LSIPs all trying to address the accountancy skills needs locally.
Presenting an alternative to university
The government is aware that a lot more awareness and stronger branding of level 4 and 5 qualifications as an alternative to a degree is needed to make these programmes a true alternative to university. This is going to be really important. When we consider the 30,000 undergraduates in our sector currently studying a full-time accountancy and finance degree, with no real work experience included in their programme, we can really appreciate that the choice to follow this career path via a university route may not be the best one. Whilst the skills of independent living, socially getting to know others and the “adventure” of university are not in question, these benefits could potentially be achieved without signing up to 90 weeks of a degree course (so just under 2 years in reality on a typical university programme, for 60 weeks are holidays).
For our sector therefore we should see accountancy as a “technical subject”, not an academic one; a subject that is practical in nature. This move will require a much clearer focus on “technical colleges” vs “academic institutions”; a move that harps back to the period before the university revolution under Tony Blair in the 1990s.
The paper is very clear that apprenticeships will continue as a focus for skills development. Whilst there are ongoing consultations regarding funding bands and what costs can be included within an apprenticeship, this government (and all other main UK political parties) remain committed to the current levy system and the building of programmes that have employers at the heart of them.
T levels also remain a critical element of this “skills for jobs” strategy. Whilst the launch of these has been a challenge over the last 12 months, the initial colleges have been selected to deliver these as alternatives to A levels. Within the accountancy sector there continues to be much discussion as to how these programmes will work, considering the length of work placements required, the additional safeguarding an employer is required to have for 16 year olds in the workplace and the overall funding available to achieve this.
Lifelong learning: A question of funding
This brings me onto what is probably the most critical element of all of this – where is the funding to achieve these changes? The government plans to implement a flexible lifetime skills guarantee – equivalent to 4 years of post 18 education – ie equivalent to what a student can access right now for a university course. This requires major changes to the Student Loan Company (SLC) to enable a student to obtain a finance loan for higher technical qualifications in same way as students can for a degree. Due to the immense changes to the current processes this is targeted to come in from 2025, but the implications of this are considerable:
- An accountancy student could get a loan for level 4 and level 5 (our accountancy professional bodies would need to register) and have their study paid for via a SLC loan. This could mean that firms consider different routes into their organisations, such as working with providers to offer placements for an 18-24 month period, followed by recruiting onto a much shortened apprenticeship programme. This isn’t just something specific to accountancy, all technical L4 and L5 qualifications could be managed this way.
- Therefore, in the same way as universities have been looking at making inroads into apprentice funding, ITPs can make inroads into the use of student loan funding.
- Obviously this will not change overnight, which is why 2025 is set as an implementation date and will require extensive changes to current student finance systems and the SLC.
Consultations will start on these proposals in Q1 2021. We can expect a strong reaction from the Higher Education (HE) lobbyists as this will make a huge change in the balance between universities and FE colleges / ITPs. However, HE institutions know that restructuring is coming. When only 20% of students actually pay off the £60,000 of debt that is built up by attending their courses, both HE and the government know the current position can’t continue.
With the consultation starting soon, we will be keenly watching the reaction from all stakeholders, but from employers (and students who want their programme to be valued by employers) these changes should be a positive step forward.
Find out more about apprenticeship programmes at FI.