Monday 21 March 2016

CVER – one year on

Sandra McNally, CVER's Director, reflects on the first year of the Centre for Vocational Education Research, and looks ahead

The BIS-funded Centre for Vocational Education Research was launched a year ago. Since then, vocational education has seen some important policy changes: The introduction of the apprenticeship levy, the announcement of the 3 million apprenticeship target, cuts in the non-apprenticeship adult skills budget, and ongoing restructuring of the further education college sector. The OECD has highlighted the dire state of basic skills among adults in England in a recent report, and policy makers are eager to improve the quality of what is being taught to adults by setting tougher conditions on what is funded.

So, in the midst of all these developments, what has CVER been doing?

Firstly, we have been data crunching and trying to make sense of the complex data collected by different government agencies as part of a complex system. The first stage is to structure the data in a way that makes it useful for research. This is a lengthy process because of the vast amount of data available and because the data was not originally set up for research purposes, meaning that many variables of interest have to be derived. During this process we have started to build a “Wikipedia for Vocational Education Data”, which is a web portal with descriptions of the data and resources such as Stata code and handbooks and will be available to outside researchers in the near future. We are also collaborating with the Administrative Data Research Network (ADRN) to facilitate the secure access to the newly available data, more structured data for other researchers outside the Centre.

Secondly, we are making progress on a detailed programme of research under several strands. The first strand of work involves a descriptive overview of the ‘vocational education’ sector and policy issues. Our first discussion paper will be published in April and will describe post-16 educational choices for a recent cohort of school-leavers up to the age of 20. A little later (before the summer), we will be publishing an analysis of the evolution of providers, learners and funding of the vocational education sector. It doesn’t take an expert to see that making sense of all this is complicated! According to Ofqual, in 2015/16 there were 21,043 available regulated vocational and qualifications (or learning aims) individuals could choose from. There were about 160 awarding organisations, which are responsible for designing and awarding qualifications. As of October 2015, there were 2,985 learning and training providers registered with the Skills Funding Agency, the body that funds further education in England. We hope that our research will de-mystify the system and produce interesting new insights even for those who understand it well.

Our second strand involves estimating labour market returns to vocational education options for individuals and the benefits to firms. The former involves using both survey and administrative data to understand returns – and to unpick the reasons why so often researchers find different estimates of returns for lower-level qualifications when using different datasets. The latter includes estimating the costs and benefits of apprenticeships to firms – and in the longer term estimating the effects of education/training more generally on measures of firm performance.

Our third strand can loosely be described as estimating the ‘production function’ for vocational education. We have a series of related projects that try to understand the mechanics of institutions involved in ‘vocational education’ and what factors are important for ‘successful outcomes’. This includes estimating the ‘value added’ of providers and other projects that focus, respectively, on the effectiveness of leadership, capital expenditure and institutional type. Our research also has a qualitative component and one such project involves a case study of the provision of apprenticeships in a Higher Education setting.

Our fourth strand involves a detailed analysis of individual participation decisions and the costs and benefits of vocational education. One project under this strand involves creating a database of job tasks by occupation code which will (amongst other things) enable us to link up what people study to the skills they use in their jobs and to how they subsequently progress.

Finally, we invite researchers to submit papers on vocational education to our first annual conference in September. Submissions are due by the end of April and we have an interesting line-up of keynote speakers, including Professor Eric Maurin (Paris School of Economics), Professor Sarah Turner (University of Virginia), and Professor Stefan Wolter (University of Berne). See for further details.

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