Further education is oft neglected by the headline grabbing areas of compulsory and higher education. Yet it is also in vital need of reform, as an excellent IEA publication entitled ‘An Adult Approach to Further Education’ by Professor Alison Wolf makes clear.
The problem with further education is familiar one, namely too much government wrapped up in the ubiquitous quangocracy of central planning and control. Of the many intersting findings of Professor Wolf’s paper, crucial is the fact that many of the qualifications that the government promotes have no economic value at all. In fact:
A conservative estimate is that £2 billion a year of further education and skills spending – i.e. almost half of total government expenditure in the sector – is wasted, providing no benefit to individual learners or society at large.
Lord Mandelson, the country deserves an explanation for this failure.
In my opinion Professor Wolf is not radical enough. She suggests that there are valid arguments for some subsidies being continued and calls for the extension of the government run student loan scheme into further education. Instead of government subsidies individuals and employers could do far better job at deciding when to undertake further education and when not to. Where markets are free, supply and demand will be met, while the case of NIIT shows that the poorest in the world can access high quality further education services at no cost to the taxpayer. The introduction of the student loan scheme would be a distortion of the credit market, which only benefits the providers of education who are able to increase their prices in line with the increases in available credit. Government subsidies and loans do not take away the risk inherent in undertaking further education, but instead muddy the waters for consumers and providers of education.
Yet despite my reservations, there can be no doubting the immense step that would be taken if Professor Woolf’s proposals were put into action. If this area is to be subsidised, better to do it through individuals, as she suggests, than rely upon central government and quangos to try to manage over the unmanageable. Professor Wolf sums up the situation as follows: “The idea that one can plan for anything as complex as the modern labour market would be laughable if it were not that we are wasting vast sums of money attempting to do so". How true.