For those of us who respond to Welsh Government consultations, the 17th July has been a long looming deadline. It was the closing date for the technical consultation on Welsh Government proposals for a new Tertiary Education and Research Commission Wales (TERCW). It detailed arguably the biggest shake-up to post-16 education and training since devolution and ran to more than 150 pages and 100 questions.
It set out details for a new arm’s length Commission to plan, regulate and fund the sector. The ambition is that from school Sixth Forms to the highest levels of learning, there will be a coherent system offering clear progression and equal opportunities for learners, and that employers will have the access to the research and training they need.
While we have maintained our support for the Commission (with some caveats) there are weaknesses in the approach outlined. Our response highlights ways to strengthen the Commission, including:
- Put lifelong learning front and centre: there is insufficient focus on the importance of lifelong learning and on the needs of second chance learners. With an ageing workforce and the challenge of automation and AI, the case for lifelong learning is stronger than ever. The Commission should put lifelong learning at the heart of their mission, including through a statutory Lifelong Learning Committee;
- Listen to the voice of the education workforce: the workforce, through the relevant trade unions, should be guaranteed seats at the top table of the Commission. In the consultation they were conspicuous by their absence. They will give the Commission credibility by balancing the ‘great and the good’ with critical friends from the trade union movement;
- Ensure learners have the chance for progression: the consultation proposes Learner Protection and Progression Plans. We fully support this but believe the emphasis is too much on what happens in the event of a course closure or institutional failure and not enough on how learners can be supported through their learning. The plans need both and more emphasis is needed on the progression side;
- Don’t forget the local: it is vital that the proposed Regulation and Outcome Agreements, which will underpin the relationship with providers, reflect both national policy priorities and the distinct needs of local communities. Neither the Commission or individual providers, no matter the international scale of their ambitions, should be allowed to forget the duty to serve their locality;
- Rebalance spending across the whole of our lives: the current priority given in legislation to 16 – 19-year-old learners has contributed to massive falls in funding for part-time, adult learning and needs to be reviewed. It is incompatible with creating a coherent system for all learners and meeting the economic and demographic challenges of our time. It should be revisited so the Commission can rebalance investment more appropriately.
- Strengthen Regional Skills Partnerships: RSPs have a vital role to play by providing a link between the Commission and the needs of employers. There is a widespread view that they are under-resourced for the role we need them to play and that they should be strengthened for the future.
Even setting aside the proposed new Commission, across the post-compulsory education and skills sector there is barely an area of policy that is untouched by impending reform. We should rightly ask whether the machinery of government can manage all that is being asked of it but as long as the Welsh Government remains committed to the new Commission, the best service we can do is to step up the scrutiny and challenge the government to get it right.