5th March 2020

An international comparison of technical education funding systems: What can England learn from successful countries?

A new report from the Education Policy Institute undertakes a comprehensive comparison of technical education in England and the UK with other developed countries.

This research considers how far England is behind leading nations, and what reforms would be necessary in order to match their technical education offer. The study examines the approach of leading technical education nations at upper secondary level (age 16-19) to funding, qualifications, student support and the curriculum.  

You can download the full report here.

Key findings

Technical vs academic funding: how does England compare with leading European nations?

  • The UK has one of the largest funding gaps between academic and technical education: technical students receive 23% less funding than academic students. This is in contrast with several other developed countries, where the reverse is common.
  • Overall, the average spend of OECD countries is 16% more per technical student than per academic student. Funding per technical student in Austria is 26% higher than for academic students, and 37% higher in both the Netherlands and Germany.
  • Technical education funding per student is lower in the UK than the OECD average: in 2016, the UK as a whole spent £6,990 per student on average vs an OECD average of £8,080.
  • Recent data shows that 16-19 education in England has seen a huge funding squeeze: between 2010-11 and 2018-19, real terms funding per student in sixth forms and colleges fell by 16%. Whilst recent government funding of £400m is focused on technical education, it will only reverse a quarter of these cuts.
  • In England, technical courses tend to be of shorter duration than comparable courses in leading developed countries, and are less expensive to run. There are fewer students enrolling in high-cost courses such as engineering, manufacturing, and construction.

Technical students receive less financial support in England

  • The lack of funding for technical education in England is also reflected in less generous student support: government bursary funding to students decreased by 71% per student between 2010/11 and 2018/19.
  • For apprenticeships, there are also less generous subsidies given to employers to pay for training, compared to leading European nations.

Technical education at upper secondary level in England is uniquely short, and its narrow curriculum may be depriving students of valuable skills 

  • England is an international outlier with an upper secondary education offer of just two years (and one year for many apprenticeships). The new T levels will also take two years to complete. This compares with Austria, where some programmes last as long as five years, Denmark (around four years) and Norway (four years).
  • The curriculum for students studying technical education at age 16-19 in England is very narrow compared to other countries. While leading technical education nations see students continuing to study languages, maths, and other general subjects to help them prepare for the labour market or further study, there is no such universal requirement in England.
  • Broadening the curriculum in England would likely require increased levels of funding: across leading nations, higher funding levels for 16-19 education are associated with a broad curriculum.  

What reforms are needed for England to become a leader in technical education?

To narrow the technical education gap, the government should:

  1. Review funding for technical pathways: while the government has pledged to address academic-technical imbalances, proposed funding increases of £400m still leave funding at a lower level than the past, and far lower than leading technical nations.
  2. Increase the number of 16-19 apprenticeship starts: starts among 16-19 students are already very low by international standards. Half of students opt for a technical pathway in England, but just 16% of these take up an apprenticeship, compared to 27% across the EU. The government should consider further redistribution of apprenticeship levy funds towards younger apprentices, and other incentives to encourage the hiring of younger workers.
  3. Review the adequacy of student support: leading technical education nations provide more generous student support at age 16-19 than in England. While targeted funding is available for the most disadvantaged students, bursary funding has fallen significantly since 2010/11.
  4. Reconsider curriculum breadth and the length of technical courses: while there are positive developments, such as the introduction of T levels, including increased teaching hours and industry placements, England’s 16-19 curriculum remains an outlier among developed nations for its narrow breadth. The government should commission an independent review to consider whether these narrow upper secondary pathways are providing the right skills for young people.