City skills: Strengthening London’s further education offer


COVID-19 has arrived after a difficult period for London’s further education sector. London has more learners and apprentices in further education than students in higher education, and it has more colleges than the UK has universities, yet the contrast between the treatment it has received compared to higher education is startling. Despite repeated government insistence on “parity of esteem”, the Augar review of English post-18 education funding talked of contrasting “care and neglect” for these two sectors of adult education. 4

In some ways this contrast is even more stark in London. The city draws in students from around the world to its universities, and young Londoners attend university in record numbers. But comparatively little attention and investment is devoted to learning outside or after university education.

This contrast raises questions about the capital’s ability to foster social inclusion. Since recovering from the 2008 recession, London’s global economy has roared ahead, creating clusters of high skilled and well paid jobs. Between 2009 and 2019, ‘professional, scientific and technical’ jobs grew by 250,000, while ‘information and communication’ jobs grew by 175,000, respectively increases of 40 and 50 per cent. 5 But not all Londoners have benefited from that economic growth, or been able to access the opportunities that it offers.

For example, although young Londoners are much more likely to attend university than their peers outside the city, a 2019 study of school leaver outcomes found that one in six Londoners aged between 20 and 24 are not in education, employment nor training – and this share is as high as in the rest of the England. 6 Half of these young people had only level 1 or level 2 qualifications, (equivalent to GSCEs or below), 7 leaving them poorly equipped to succeed in the labour market.

Indeed, London’s labour market is particularly competitive, and unrewarding for people without qualifications. London is an expensive place to live, but wages in the capital are higher – at least if you have good qualifications. As Figure 1 shows, Londoners with level 3 qualifications or equivalent (A levels on the chart) earn on average 24 per cent more than their peers outside the capital (with a higher premium still for higher qualifications), but the wage premium is only three per cent for those with low or unknown qualifications, making the case for boosting access to intermediate qualifications, and eventually higher qualifications, even more pressing in London.

The COVID-19 pandemic brings new urgency to this agenda. We are currently living through a period of significant distress and disruption. Along with a huge human toll, there have been dramatic costs to businesses and employment, with pubs, restaurants and shops across the country reeling from physical distancing measures.

At the time of writing this report, the government’s job retention scheme seems to have limited layoffs, but this may only be postponing job losses in some sectors. Over recent years, the UK’s retail industry and high streets have struggled to survive in their traditional form, and this new crisis will inevitably push many to the brink. For employees in these sectors, this may create the need for retraining and upskilling to move into new employment in the post-COVID-19 world. And for young people entering the labour market during the recession, further education could offer opportunities in industries or occupations that are still expanding. However, the potential for increased demands on further education, and the need to futureproof skills for similar disruptions, are likely to be a challenge for a sector that is already stretched.

This won’t be the only challenge. With immigration reform approaching, there are likely to be further skills shortages in the capital where, on average, 15 per cent of the workforce is EEA born (significantly higher than in the rest of the country). 8 Across some sectors such as tech, construction and hospitality, the effect of Brexit will be even more profound. 9 Any reduction in EU immigration is therefore likely to have a more pronounced impact on the capital than elsewhere in the country. 10 Yet, with the right policies and skills, these changes could also present new opportunities for Londoners. Any tightening of immigration policy will create intense pressure on further education to develop programmes to help fill in the skills gaps.

Ensuring that all Londoners can access high quality further education will be an essential part of tackling some of these issues and providing Londoners with the skills to thrive in the capital’s competitive labour market.

This report explores the extent to which the further education sector is meeting the needs of Londoners, enabling them to access and compete in the labour market, and providing both learners and employers with the skills that the city will need at a time of profound and far reaching change. To do this, we reviewed the growing body of research on further education, and analysed data on course and training provision, and labour market trends. These findings were then tested with sector experts at a private roundtable.

Further education in London

Further education is defined by government as “any study after secondary education that’s not part of higher education (that is, not taken as part of an undergraduate or graduate degree)”. This ranges from basic English or maths to highly selective engineering apprenticeships.

This broad mandate means that further education has a broad reach. As Figure 2 shows, London has more learners in further education than it has students in higher education. Of those in further education, 55 per cent are predominantly “classroom based”, 20 per cent are on an apprenticeship scheme, and 25 per cent are taking a short course that usually does not award a qualification (adult and community learning).

The further education offer is diverse in nature and dispersed across the capital, which won’t come as a surprise given its wide remit. There are more publicly-funded further education providers in London (307) than there are universities in the UK (165). Publicly-funded further education providers include colleges, local authorities, and independent organisations, both for profit and not for profit. On top of this, there are entirely privately funded learning providers – though no data is collected on their activity.

  • 4 Independent panel report to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (2019).
  • 5 Office for National Statistics (2020). Workforce jobs, seasonally adjusted.
  • 6 Boshoff, J., Moore, J., & Speckesser, S. (2019). Inequality in education and labour market participation of young people across English localities: An exploration based on Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data.
  • 7 Boshoff, J., Moore, J., & Speckesser, S. (2019).
  • 8 Brown R., Kulka B. (2018). Human Capital: Disruption, opportunity and resilience in London’s workforce. Centre for London.
  • 9 Brown R., Kulka B. (2018).
  • 10 London Councils. Skills gap in London.