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### Reforming Skills in England Amidst Growing Student Numbers

The upcoming UK government is under pressure to increase investment in skills training to accommodate a projected surge of 150,000 additional students seeking higher education in England by 2030, as highlighted by educational experts.

The Association of Colleges (AOC), representing technical colleges, is set to release a report emphasizing the necessity to seize the opportunity presented by a short-term rise in school-leavers to expand educational pathways beyond traditional degrees.

Estimates from London Economics, commissioned by AOC, suggest a 33% increase in first-year undergraduate students in England by 2030-31, reaching 683,000 from the current 522,000. This growth will strain education budgets, prompting a call for the expansion of apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications, according to David Hughes, AOC chief executive.

Despite escalating spending on university courses, there is a persistent gap in meeting the nation’s skill requirements, leaving many individuals underserved while employers face shortages, Hughes noted.

The demographic bulge, with a projected 18% rise in 16- to 18-year-olds by 2030, will lead to a temporary surge in student demand across universities and further educational colleges. However, universities are facing financial challenges, with each domestic student causing a £2,500 loss this year, a figure expected to double by 2030 unless fee policies change.

Moreover, government spending on skills remains 23% below 2009-10 levels, despite a recent £900mn increase in funding for adult education and apprenticeships. The apprenticeship levy introduced in 2017 has not yielded the anticipated training boost, with a significant drop in starts in England.

As the political landscape evolves, the Labour party aims to transform existing further education colleges into “technical excellence colleges” and reform the apprenticeship levy to enhance training opportunities. The AOC suggests redirecting levy funds to address national and local skill needs, empowering local entities to deliver relevant skills, and fostering stronger ties between colleges and universities.

Experts stress the urgency for any future government to address the impending funding crisis in the education sector to promote equity, address skills shortages, and enhance economic productivity. Suggestions include allowing universities meeting performance targets to adjust fees in line with inflation and expanding FE college places to provide more opportunities for young adults.

The demographic shift offers a unique chance to rebalance the higher education system, reducing barriers between degree-level and technical qualifications. The introduction of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) scheme from 2025-25 enables adult learners to access flexible funding for higher education or technical qualifications, fostering collaboration between universities and FE colleges.

The Department for Education is collaborating with employers to diversify educational pathways, offering alternatives like apprenticeships and Higher Technical Qualifications in key sectors such as digital, construction, and health, to ensure every young person has access to quality education and training opportunities.