Work-for-Benefits – some lessons from the 1930s

The idea of demanding work in exchange for benefits crops up repeatedly. We therefore know quite a lot about how work-for-benefit schemes operate in practice. Looking back at the various schemes of the interwar years, it is possible to draw a number of conclusions that are worth considering before any such initiative is adopted today.

  1. Expect to spend a lot of money. The British government work camps system, which ran between 1929 and 1939, processed around 200,000 long term unemployed men. This might sound like a lot, but it was a tiny proportion of the total unemployed. And although successive governments considered a significant expansion, they decided that they could not afford to do so.
  2. Supervision is very challenging. Even at the best of times, the British Ministry of Labour supervisors found it difficult to keep everyday order in the camps, and in some respects they didn’t bother, but rather accepted that there would be a certain level of violence between the men. This was a particular problem between 1929 and 1931, when the Labour Government made attendance compulsory for the long term unemployed. As a result, the Ministry of Labour always objected to any later attempts to reintroduce compulsion.
  3. Training is minimal. The trainees are reluctant to be there, and therefore their motivation to learn is very low. This was again a particular problem between 1929 and 1931, during the period of compulsory attendance.
  4. The work has to have significance. The great success among interwar work camp movements was Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps in the USA. Here, the men undertook work of real national significance, which could then be publicised across the nation, and celebrated. Even today, older socialists in the USA remember the CCC with affection.
  5. Job placement rates are low. Men who went through the British government work camps were no more likely to find work at the end than those who did not. In some years, the job placement rates were lower for the trainees than for those outside the camps, presumably because the trainees spent their time working on the land rather than hearing about jobs.

So the bottom line is that compulsory work-for-benefits will only work if it is universal, expensive and prestigious – if we assume that its main aim is to get the unemployed into work and off benefits. In this context, it’s worth noting that the UK Government’s own mandatory work programme has similarly been judged expensive and ineffective – though this has not stopped them from extending it.

One other possible aim of mandatory work-for-benefit is, of course, to win political approval. There is always a constituency of voters who want government to be tougher on welfare claimants. Pleasing this group is a lot easier than it was in the 1930s, when the National Unemployment Workers Movement led a number of lively campaigns against what it called “slave camps”. No similar movement exists today, and politicians can accordingly expect little or no organised protest against their treatment of the unemployed.

Skills beyond school: the role of short cycle higher vocational qualifications

The OECD has just published a new report, Skills beyond school – England, which recommends a significant increase in one- and two-year vocational programmes. Fewer than 10% of young people in England currently take a short vocational programme in mid-level skills, compared with up to one third in other OECD countries. The OECD report makes a number of recommendations designed to make short vocational programmes more attractive.

As an aside, the OECD calls these ‘short’ programmes, which is ironic given that you can take an entire apprenticeship within a year. Damaging as this might be for the reputation of British apprenticeships, though, it’s a side issue in this particular context.

If the Department for Business Innovation and Skills wants to learn some easy lessons, it could do worse than look across the border to Scotland. I’m not one of those people who think everything in education is better in Scotland – far from it – but we do have considerable experience of a large programme of short cycle higher education, largely taught in non-university settings. So what can we learn from the Scottish example?

  • It is a sizeable system. One in every three higher education students in Scotland is in a college, taking an HNC/HND. These courses are highly attractive, partly because they are locally offered (there is a college campus in virtually every community of every size), and partly because they are flexible, with many of the students following part-time routes.
  • Short cycle higher education widens participation. While universities in Scotland recruit students who come mainly from the upper socio-economic groups, colleges overwhelmingly recruit the less advantaged.
  • The system has a bias towards employability. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in the kinds of subject that the OECD might have in mind: the largest number of HNCs and HNDs are awarded in business and management, followed by health, then creative arts and design. Engineering and computing are significant in size, but are far from the most popular subjects. Nevertheless, broadly speaking, the system fits the vocational model recommended by OECD.
  • Short cycle qualifications appear to be valued in the labour market. Studies of the earnings effects of HNCs and HNDs show that average salaries are lower than for a degree, but clearly above the earnings of those who have lower level qualifications. However, we don’t have many such studies, and none cover the period since the onset of the recession.

So the Scottish system of short cycle higher education, delivered in non-university contexts, has some clear strengths. But anyone looking for easy lessons should also be aware that the Scottish system has come at a cost.

One is that over time, short cycle higher education has tended to crowd vocational further education out. The proportion of college students registered for HNCs and HNDs has held steady over the past seven or eight years, but the number on so-called ‘non-advanced’ courses has fallen. I don’t know whether this is because colleges see higher education as more prestigious, or because it is financially advantageous, or for some other reason, but that is what has happened.

Another problem is that increasingly, the focus has narrowed down to initial full-time courses. For twenty years, the expanded short cycle programmes formed part of a lifelong learning system, attracting many adults through their flexibility and relevance. As the Scottish Government has sought savings to protect its university spending (particularly its policy on tuition fees), so it has slashed back on part-time routes to HNCs and HNDs.

Lastly, while short cycle courses have helped to increase higher education participation and widen it, Scottish universities have remained stubbornly selective in their intake. Scotland has a two tier system, where the colleges’ success in widening access allows the universities to carry on with business as usual. We may not have selection at 11, but higher education is effectively streamed.

So there’s plenty to chew on if England is to expand its vocational system in the direction recommended by OECD. Certainly, given the scandals over poor quality apprenticeships and unpaid ‘training’ schemes, a move up market would not go amiss. But it needs to be done in a way that helps contribute towards lifelong learning rather than damaging it.

Is the Dual System in Germany at a turning point?

Germany’s apprenticeship system is known and admired across the world. Widely seen as guaranteeing a high-skills labour force, the German ‘Dual System’ combines a broad education with intensive mentoring, supervision and practice in the workplace. Germany’s universities, by contrast, enjoy no such reputation for dynamism and success. So it is interesting to hear of growing concern in Europe’s economic powerhouse over the future balance between the academic and vocational pathways.

For many decades, the vocational path was taken by the great majority of German school-leavers. And impressive numbers continue to do so. In 2012, almost 550,000 young people signed contracts to begin one of the 350-odd officially recognized and heavily regulated apprenticeships. Yet the numbers starting in the dual system are falling, while the numbers entering higher education are rising.

In 2011-12, some 518,000 enrolled in a higher education institution. If current trends continue, more school-leavers will be entering an HEI than are following an apprenticeship. And that will, at least in symbolic terms, be quite a turning point.

Unsurprisingly, some Germans think this a most unhealthy trend. Julian Nida-Rümelin, a Munich philosophy professor and social-democrat politician, describes the trend as an ‘academicization delusion’. For Nida-Rümelin, the dual system should be valued for producing highly educated and well-trained skilled workers, who come from all layers of society. But he also shares with other leading academics a belief that too many young people are entering higher education who cannot cope with the demands of their chosen subject.

On the other side of the debate, the German government and the OECD see the growth of higher education as a welcome step towards a knowledge economy. Currently, the proportion of graduates in German society lies well below the EU average. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD says the market is sending a clear message: if graduates earn 74% more than those who complete apprenticeships, then of course young people will enrol in higher education.

This earnings differential should raise some eyebrows in countries where the German dual system has been held up as an example. How can it be that the world’s best-trained skilled specialists earn little over half as much as the graduates of a rather middle-ranking HE system? Part of the answer lies in the very scope of the dual system, which encompasses a vast range of occupations, including some that are not always well-paid.
The largest single group among the 2012 intake were people training for the retail sector. And yes, before you ask, the majority of this group were women.

So while it is true that the dual system produces some very skilled and rounded workers in specialist trades like mechatronics or medical technicians, it is also producing shop assistants. Thanks to the dual system, German shop assistants are mostly highly literature, pretty numerate and often competent in one or more foreign languages. And closer to home, given my interests, the system produces bakers who understand the science of bread-making and brewers who understand the science of beer.

But the risk that Julian Nida-Rümelin points to is that apprenticeships are becoming a second class pathway, while the academic option becomes the royal road. And the example of Britain is not, in this respect, particularly encouraging.