Education and Skills in 2017: Choices and Consequences

It’s been a turbulent 12 months in the Education and Skills sector, and 2017 looks likely to be similar. Learning providers, learners and employers are all facing challenging choices as the consequences of the major political and policy decisions of the last few years start to crystallise, and as others, particular Brexit, start to emerge.

With so much change and uncertainty, what are the known knowns that we can expect in Education and Skills for the year ahead?

Higher Education

Results of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) second trial year are due in May – ratings of the quality of teaching offered by universities focusing on outcomes such as student satisfaction, retention rates and employment data. (The Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education work, with which IFF is so heavily involved, forms one part of this.) Clearly there will be great interest from HE institutions about their performance, but TEF results are not an end in themselves, and research will be needed to see if TEF meets two of its core aims of better informing students’ choices about what and where to study, and assessing whether it is better meeting the needs of employers.

TEF represents just part of the government’s wider HE reforms, which are set out in the Higher Education and Research Bill, which is expected to be passed later in the year. This aims to ensure that ‘everyone with the potential to benefit from higher study can access relevant information to help them make the right choices from a wide range of high-quality universities and benefit from excellent teaching that supports their future productivity’; and more broadly seeks to increase competition and choice, promote social mobility, boost productivity in the economy, and ensure students and taxpayers receive value for money. These are clearly medium to long term goals, and it will be critical to assess the impact of the changes it introduces in the HE sector, particularly the extent to which it delivers increased choice, social mobility and a better ‘end product’ for employers.

The HE landscape is expected to start to change in and from 2017, both in terms of the number of HE providers (with the government aiming to open up the market to more new HE providers – though recent amendments to the Bill in the House of Lords may affect that) and UUK’s review, led by Sir David Bell, expected to propose the merger of a number of bodies to create a single HE workforce development agency to streamline the sector and save money. The timing, management and implication of these changes will clearly be of great interest to all players in the HE sector.

Further Education

In FE, perhaps the biggest structural issue in 2016, and continuing into this year, is the series of area-based reviews, which are due for completion by summer 2017. In the final two waves, over 90 FE colleges and more than 20 sixth form colleges will be reviewed: reports on these waves are due at the end of March 2017. The next step will be implementing the recommendations from the area reviews, which include many proposed mergers (the number of FE colleges is expected to fall by a third), and many sixth form colleges expected to switch to academy status. As with HE, it will be of great interest to research the consequences these changes have for the FE sector, especially on learner choice and experience, and for helping employers meet their skill needs.

Big news of course in 2016 was the government’s revised Skills Plan, heavily influenced by Lord Sainsbury’s report on technical education, outlining the aim to replace some 20,000 post-16 vocational qualifications with just 15 high-quality routes. The first of these isn’t scheduled to be taught until September 2019, so 2017 is likely to see more detailed discussion and more flesh on the bones about the delivery of these 15 routes. With a significantly increased role for employers in the new system, IFF is currently working with DfE to work out the best way to capture employers’ willingness and ability to respond to Post-16 reform. This work is underway and we will be able to say more about the outcomes in the coming months.

It will also be interesting to see how FE responds to the apprenticeship challenge in 2017 – recent data suggest to date this has been sluggish, with the proportion of all apprenticeship funding going to FE colleges falling from 37% in 2015/16 to 32% in 2016/17. And it will be interesting to see the impact of continuing devolution / decentralization of FE funding and the Adult Education Budget and the increased role of Local Enterprise Partnerships: some have expressed a concern that this risks leading to a postcode lottery for adult skills provision, while the Public Accounts Committee described devolution plans as ‘high risk’.

And 2017 will see the publication of performance tables for FE and sixth form colleges as part of the government’s 16-19 accountability measures. These cover student progress, attainment, progress in English and maths, retention, and destinations. As with TEF, of key interest will be what effect they have on student choice, and in helping schools and colleges improve their performance. This clearly presents an opportunity for research to play a role.


In the Apprenticeship arena, the much-awaited funding reforms are coming into effect, with the Apprenticeship Levy introduced from 6 April 2017. Employers in England generally seem aware of the fact that those with a pay bill over £3m will need to invest in apprenticeships (at a rate of 0.5% of their pay bill minus a levy allowance of £15,000 per year), with employers then able to access funding for apprenticeships through a new digital apprenticeship service account. What is less certain is how employers will respond.

We undertook some initial research for DfE looking at this issue (published here). Fieldwork for that study took place from March to June 2016, and at the time many employers were still coming to terms with the potential impact of the levy, were still awaiting clarification of key aspects of how it would operate, and were only just starting their planning processes.

Current research we are undertaking suggests large employers have generally come to terms with the levy and are looking for ways to maximize the value they get from it. Most plan increased starts, often through recruitment but sometimes expanding apprenticeships for current staff (sometimes substituting existing training for apprenticeships), with some growth into higher apprenticeships and expanding apprenticeships into new areas of the business such as providing apprenticeship training for management.

It will be interesting to see the choices made by employers, and whether:

  • The levy leads to an increase in apprenticeship numbers sufficient to meet the target of 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020?
  • The profile of apprentices changes, and whether more come from disadvantaged backgrounds
  • The impact of the levy changes over time (for example, once employers train existing staff on apprenticeships, and if staff turnover is low, will they need to develop new strategies to use their ‘levy pot’?)
  • There is a big reduction in non-apprenticeship training
  • The anticipated increase in apprentice numbers reduces skill gaps within the economy.

It’s not just about the Levy of course. For example, both the Digital Apprenticeship Service and the Institute for Apprenticeships are expected to be up and running in 2017, and there is much interest in how well these deliver against their aims and objectives, and contribute to the delivery of high quality apprenticeships in the numbers envisaged.

So 2017 promises to be an eventful year in the Education and Skills arena, and hopefully one full of research opportunities.