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In this skills election, the real question is about choice

Promise from three major parties address a historic lack of attention paid to the skills sector. But two of these work within existing systems, with the other being an unprecedented wholesale reform. David Kernohan wonders how much planning we are ready for.
This article is more than 4 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Skills wallets? Or a skills escalator? Definitely not Augar, but perhaps some extra money for FE?

Early election campaign promises have begun to trickle in – and post-compulsory education, and research, have been at the forefront. The links between skills and productivity, and between a qualified workforce and profitability, are powerful – this time round, parties appear to be betting that this power can be felt by voters.

Promises, promises

Let’s take the Labour offer first – the National Education Service was a big part of the 2017 campaign, but the only aspect anyone talked about was the end of tuition fees. The more detailed plans released last week include this famous promise, but the thrust of the launch was very much more focused on skills and further education.

Free level three qualifications for all, plus the equivalent of six years at level four or above, could take someone with no academic qualifications all the way to Masters level at no cost. This would both plug the national skills gap, and empower thousands of people who may not have got the most out of school and lack the funds to go back. There’s also the promise of an (NES branded). It’s a huge, transformative, offer – to be- with a commensurately huge price tag.

The Liberal Democrats have proposed a Skills Wallet. Similar in scope to the old (and occasionally lamented) individual learning account from the early years of this century – the idea is a personal account that is periodically topped up by the government. What is interesting is when it is topped up – at age 25, 40, and 55. The aim is clearly reskilling and upskilling, sitting as a complement to the existing educational offer. And it is cheaper than the NES too.

There’s been no equivalent promise from the Conservative party so far. Despite the existence of the Augar report, which was commissioned by a Conservative minority government to address precisely this problem. Instead, warm words and an extra £400m recurrent from the spending round have been joined by £1.8bn of capital for a “rebuilding programme”. Together these constitute a same-but-more offer. Long seen as the Cinderella of the education system, your local college (or the conglomerate of institutions that includes what once was your local college) will finally get to go to the ball in a shiny new building.

Why skills?

As well as the economic and productivity angle, a rethink of the skills offer has a personal impact. Many people find themselves trapped in a job (or having lost a job) without the qualifications or skills to progress or to change career. With the well documented end of the job-for-life, and the changing nature of work, shifting career or updating skills has become a part of everyday life.

Education, once seen as something that happens at the start of your life, has to become a constant – this is the kind of thinking in which Labour’s NES, with the NHS-like on-demand free at the point of use language, is rooted. But, again like the NHS, it feels needs based. A planning structure would sit above it, and an advisory system as a front door, to ensure that useful and useable skills are taught.

The issue is compounded by the expectation of collaboration between providers. On a national level this makes sense – surely we don’t need that many near identical courses in business or creative arts, and there is scope for efficiency – but much of the way providers see themselves is about the uniqueness of their offer. A student may choose college y over university x for a range of reasons unconnected with the learning on offer – an NES would focus entirely on making sure enough people have the skills that are needed at national, local, and sector level.

This is far from the choice agenda that has driven post-compulsory education for most of the last 50 years – and that underpins the Lib Dem offer of a training budget, and the Conservative plans to put more money into existing system. Since the disappearance of student number controls in HE in 2012 (themselves levers that were only very tentatively pulled), we’ve not had any kind of planned post compulsory education system. It would come as a shock to many.

Planned obsolescence

If you’ve read any CBI report on education you’ll know that employers are often frustrated with graduates who don’t have the skills that they need. Part of this, of course, is employers trying to skimp on job-specific training – but there is a grain of truth in the accusations of a mis-match between course outcomes and job skills.

The most prominent attempts to rectify this have been in the newer wave of apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships – employers (perhaps driven by the fact they are paying a mandatory levy anyway) actively contributing to the design as well as the delivery of courses. And there are, of course, thousands of examples of employers taking an active role in courses at particular (often local) HE and FE institutions.

The Lib Dem suggestion is that employers could choose to contribute to an employee’s “skills wallet” for a particular course – and there is nothing to stop them doing so anyway. The Labour approach sees employers as participants in the wider skills system – recognising and aiming to address the often patchy nature of on the job training.

Employers can be co-designers, co-investors, and co-producers of skills provision, even within the current system. The Lifelong Learning Commission proposal is to recognise these roles with a skills tax credit, similar to the existing R&D credit – and to work with employers to improve their own skills provision, with support from mainstream providers.

Whither universities?

The Lifelong Learning Commission report is light on university specifics – beyond a general expectation of collaboration and local responsiveness, and some tough language on the downsides of competition. In contrast, the implication in the policies of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is very much business as usual.

Though our sector has been more concerned about brexit and funding in manifestoes released so far, one of the proposals on the table has far reaching implications about the way universities relate to each other, to other sectors, and society as a whole. In a way, this is not a new direction of travel for many – witness the many HE/FE and HE/employer collaborations, and the emergence of the civic agenda. Local and sector industrial strategies have in some ways prepared the ground for a more responsive mode of working.

But universities have been in a competitive environment for a long time – is the idea too ingrained for us to change? And how will we respond to a change forced upon us?

One response to “In this skills election, the real question is about choice

  1. I find the Green Party’s Manifesto really refreshing, in light of the above, arguing for university courses to be offered as learning experiences, not as pre-work training. Education for education’s sake. If you start trying to build other agendas into education, you run the risk of wanting particular things on behalf of students, and in advance of the fact. Unless students come to want things for themselves, and find their own direction, they won’t benefit, and neither will anyone else.

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