Training policy – a return to the tripartite system?

Skills featured prominently in the budget debate this year. At least, they did on the Government side of the debate: Philip Hammond, the U.K. Chancellor (or Finance Minister), made skills a central plank in his strategy for improving productivity and growth. The leader and other senior figures in the Labour Party have so far focused on other issues, notably housing, poverty and unemployment, though they may get around to addressing the skills proposals later on. And I will also try to blog on the issues of productivity and skills in the next few days.

Meanwhile I wanted to draw attention to Philip Hammond’s mention of the trade union movement and employers’ representatives. Apparently the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress have formed a partnership with the Government over the design of a National Retraining Scheme. It will start relatively modestly, it seems, with investment in digital and construction skills. And it includes continuing support for UnionLearn, which seems to me a good idea.

To be honest, I found myself rather surprised by this section of Hammond’s speech. Three-way partnerships in training policy between state, employers and unions are well established in many European countries, including Germany and the Scandinavian nations. And they were once normal in the U.K., particularly after the 1964 Industrial Training Act set out a national system of tripartite sector-based Industrial Training Boards. Hilary Pemberton argued that this legislation failed to transform deep rooted cultural attitudes, making it easy for the Thatcher Government to do away with it.

Whether Hammond’s National Retraining Scheme will do any better is a moot point. It clearly represents a much more modest form of tripartism than the ITBs, but perhaps this will prove an asset – particularly if the Retraining Scheme is linked firmly with measures to promote skills utilisation. The history is less than promising, but if the Government is able to persist with the Scheme, it might prove very interesting indeed.

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Research, Policy, and Practice in Lifelong Learning

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The Universities Association for Lifelong Learning has chosen to focus on ‘Research, Policy and Practice‘ for its 2018 conference. You will find the call for papers on the UALL website, and it promises to be a lively and constructive event. Given the poor health of adult learning across the four UK nations, it also seems particularly timely.

I’ll be interested to see how researchers and practitioners now understand and address this triangular relationship. Ideas of evidence-based practice have not often found an enthusiastic reception in adult or further education, partly because of a (not unreasonable) suspicion of outside experts floating in to a field where expertise so often draws on experience, partly because ‘what works’ can change dramatically between one context and another, and partly because some academics are rather precious about avoiding a whiff of application.

Now might be a good time for moving beyond such unproductive refusals and to develop further the existing dialogues between research and practice over the types of evidence we need, and how best to use it. Academic researchers are now under considerable pressure to show that people read and use their findings, and practitioners are often required to justify their practice. This offers quite an opportunity.

As for policy, though, where do you begin? Evidence for the benefits of adult learning is not hard to find. My own overview of UK longitudinal studies – which show marked gains for individual learners and their communities, as well as gains for employers – is far and away my most frequently downloaded publication. The OECD survey of adult skills, usually known by its acronym of PIAAC, provides an international insight into these effects. UNESCO devoted its Third Global Report on Adult Learning to a review of research, and found clear support for positive effects on health and well-being, employment and the labour market, and community life and social capital.

So in principle it should be easy to persuade policymakers to consider treating adult learning as an intervention with a proven record of success. In practice, this has not been easy. The evidence base is still not as strong as it could be (for example, is adult learning more effective and less costly than other ways of achieving the same effects?), and I’m not sure we have still figured out what the distribution of benefits might mean for funding the system.

A second problem is, bluntly, the reluctance of policymakers to listen to the evidence and discuss the implications. Very few politicians, employers or senior civil servants have much direct experience of adult or further education. There are exceptions, of course: David Blunkett was an unusual Secretary of State in that he had been an adult student, is an alumnus of the Huddersfield postgraduate certificate in further education, and taught in Barnsley College. And among current MPs, Chi Onwurah and David Lammy for Labour and Caroline Dinenage for the Conservatives have all actively promoted debate over greater public support for adult learning.

So there are grounds for hope, but any chance of effective influence on policymakers will require a much stronger and long term commitment than most researchers in adult learning have shown so far. It will also require dialogue with politicians while in opposition, rather than contacting them for the first time when they are in power. In England, this is something that NIACE used to be very good at, and I hope that the Learning and Work Institute can build on this. But the issues are too important for researchers to hope that they can leave the job to others.

 

Change and resistance in the German apprenticeship system

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VERDI members in Deutsche Post demonstrating over wages

Deutsche Post, the postal service best known outside Germany through its courier arm DHL, has found itself in hot water over proposed changes to its apprenticeship scheme. Currently, the enterprise annually takes 1,400 young people through the much-admired ‘dual system’, combining supervised workplace learning  with formal education in a trade school, working towards a qualification in delivery services. In future, it plans to reduce this number to 750 a year, and take a further 750 who will be trained through work-based learning.

This decision has been sharply criticised by the public service labour union VERDI (or “ver.di” as it prefers to be branded), which described the decision as ‘intolerable’. The ground for VERDI’s objection is less the introduction of a three-year work-based route than the reduction in the number of two-year dual system places, which it described as ‘withdrawing from responsibility for young people’.

For me, what matters about this dispute is the light it sheds on attempts to reform apprenticeship in Germany. According to Deutsche Post, the aim is to open up its reruitment to adult workers with experience in other occupations who wish to retrain as skilled courier, express and postal workers. It argues that the new pathway has the same quality as the dual system, and will equally end with an examination administered by the national Chamber for Industry and Trade, who will then similarly award the certificate. The advantage of the new scheme, it claims, is that it will allow the firm to widen the scope of its recruitment to include adults.

And there lies the rub. Germany’s dual system has a global reputation for quality – something that VERDI deploys as a reason to resist change. But in our fast-moving labour market, the dual system with its focus on school-leavers moving into their first (and lifelong) job can also be understood as too rigid to form an effective component of a lifelong learning system.

Deutsche Post’s initiative is therefore well worth watching as a possible sign of increasing flexibility in the dual system. And as the firm has more employees outside than inside Germany, then it might be worth asking what the implications are for DHL delivery staff in other countries.

 

 

 

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Doctor Who and my own little social media bubble 

Preparing the latest edition of my textbook on social capital, I became particularly interested in the way that social media are shaping our social connections. Judging by the research available, social media play a complex role in which they sometimes complement and sometimes compete with face to face relationships. And sometimes they mirror each other.

One way in which social media mirror face to face interaction is a tendency towards homophily. Most people like to follow others on social media who are broadly similar to themselves – just as they do in other social interactions. Yet the main benefit of social media is the opportunity they provide for interacting with those who are very different from yourself. And if you think that being challenged by different perspectives is beneficial, as I do, then you try to build social media networks that are broad and diverse.

And I thought that was what I had done. During the Scottish referendum I managed to get attacked by Tweeps from both sides; I follow UKIPPERs, Corbynistas, Remainers, Welsh Nats, Lib Dems, some Tories and a Cornish independence campaigner; I follow people from different countries and speakers of four European languages. Some even follow golf and motor racing, which I hate with a vengeance. I don’t think I follow any racists, and certainly none who are overt, but I do follow some people who think all whites are at best deeply inclined towards racism. So it’s hardly an echo chamber – but clearly I’ve been too smug by half.

The new Doctor Who


Today I woke up to aTwitter storm over the new Doctor Who. The long running BBC series will now be led by a woman, played by the wonderful Jodie Whittaker, and my timeline was full of people protesting vociferously against others who had complained about the role going to a woman. But not a single tweet appeared from the protesters, not a single one. 

UNow it is possible that actually hardly anyone is really upset by a female Doctor. This is hardly radical casting: we’ve had feminist sci-fi for decades – why would one more female lead bother anyone? I can imagine that one or two of the usual rent-a-pen journalists might perform anger in order to generate a bit of click bait for their employer (I’m not going to name them, because that is what they want). But perhaps they are on their own this time.

Or perhaps I’ve stumbled across the boundaries of my own social media bubble. And even this bubble reflects face-to-face bonds, because I realise that I don’t actually know anyone who watches or even cares a fart about Doctor Who. On reflection, though, I am inclined to return to my smug default setting: what Twitter has done is connect me with a community that was previously unknown to me. How diverse is that? 

Is a university education really a public good? 

Following our inconclusive general election last month, the issue of higher education funding has again come to the fore. Both the main parties came in for criticism, with the Tory minister Jo Johnson defending the current tuition fees in the Guardian, and Labour’s shadow education minister Angela Rayner admitting that wiping out student debt, as trailed by her Party leader, might not be realistic. And along came Andrew Adonis, former Labour minister, pointing out that vice chancellors had taken the £9,000 yearly tuition fee as a baseline rather than a cap, and had used the income not to create grants and bursaries for poorer students but to award themselves generous salary hikes (a view generally thought by vice chancellors to be massively unfair) and hire research “stars”.
My Twitter feed quickly filled up with people proclaiming that Johnson was wrong to depict higher education as purely a private investment. Rather, they suggested, it was a public good – a point usually illustrated by short lists of the nice people who graduate, such as doctors and teachers and . . . Well, that was usually it.

Doctors and teachers are of course Good Things (though some of them skip off, after their publicly funded training, to work for private hospitals and schools). But universities also educate accountants, estate agents, hedge fund managers, investment bankers, management consultants, and those people in university admin who draft regulations requiring external examiners to produce a passport. In short, we can draw up our own list of nice and less nice graduate professions to suit our beliefs. 

The case for higher education as a public good has to run a lot deeper, and it probably can’t easily be made on Twitter. It cannot be selective but has to cover the entire teaching function. It has to take in the research side of our work (quite a bit of which – let’s be honest about it – is funded from tuition income). It has to examine our role in our communities. And it has to be based on evidence.

Where I stand on this debate is straightforward: I think higher education has a mix of private and public good outcomes. And I think these are skewed, with the majority of benefits accruing to those who are already relatively advantaged by parentage and by circumstances. For me it follows that free tuition is socially regressive as it mainly benefits the middle and upper social strata, and also implies a cap on student numbers; while high fees damage society and economy alike by building up massive debt. 

My preference is for some kind of graduate endowment, as proposed by the Cubie Committee in Scotland in 1999, payable after graduation once the graduate’s earnings reach a defined point above the national average earnings. And I’d accompany it with means-tested living grants for disadvantaged students. In today’s polarised debate this might seem a long way off, but it is clear that neither free tuition nor the current fee level are sustainable, so change is going to come. And while we are at it, we might also look for a student funding system that promotes part-time higher education for people in work.

Checking the health of adult learning research

I’ve just spent an enjoyable and stimulating day at the 2017 SCUTREA conference.  The acronym represents a rather unwieldy title, the Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults, and it is best understood as the main UK gathering for researchers in adult learning.

For many years SCUTREA drew its audience from academics working in specialist adult education departments. There are fewer of these than in the past, but SCUTREA has held up rather well, and it coninues to be a lively, congenial and stimulating event. What does this tell us about the state of our field?

First, it continues to attract a decent level of participation. Eightynine people registered for this year’s event, which is about the same level as for other SCUTREA conferences in recent years, and the sessions I attended provoked a healthy level of debate. Almost all the participants also offered papers, many looking at adult learning through perspectives influenced by postcolonialism, intersectionality, and queer theory.

Just by way of contrast, I pulled out a copy of the SCUTREA papers from 1982, when there were 11 presentations and 61 delegates, plus 5 ‘observers’ (I wonder whether the observers were allowed to speak). You can see from the titles that the contents were largely empirical with a focus on practice.

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SCUTREA has always attracted overseas researchers, and I was interested to see that this year they outnumbered the 39 UK delegates. Though I haven’t checked, I don’t remember this happening in previous years. What was more familiar was the source of the overseas participants: most came from Anglophone nations, with 14 from Canada, 12 from the USA, 4 from Ireland and 2 from Australia. Only 11 came from continental Europe, with the largest contingents coming from Sweden (4) and Germany (3).

The UK delegates came from 18 different HEIs and one residential college. The largest group from any one institution came from Huddersfield, whose Centre for Research in Education and Society is clearly thriving. In 1982, the largest contingent (7) were from Nottingham. My sense is that the centre of gravity in our field is shifting toward the post-92 HEIs, whose role in further education teacher education gives them a critical mass of academics.

I’ve taken SCUTREA conferences before as a health check for research in our field; so what can we conclude from the 2017 event? I think my own conclusions are firstly that adult learning continues to provide an important focus for research, and that SCUTREA continues to provide asignificant forum for parts of that research. I also think that SCUTREA has a job on its hands to attract a larger share of the UK research community in our field. Taking the long view, though, it is clearly doing fine!

Skills and hostility to migration

Today saw publication of the results from the 34th British Social Attitudes Survey. Every year, a team of social researchers asks a sample of around 3,000 people about their views on current social issues. You can find the results on the NatCen website: http://www.natcen.ac.uk, and I always find them well worth reading.


The 2014 Survey included some revealing questions on people’s attitudes to immigration. We already know from previous research that the most highly educated individuals tend to be the most welcoming towards immigrants. Because the Survey belongs to an international consortium of similar studies, we can compare this pattern across countries. The results show that when analysed by level of education, attitudes in Britain are more polarised than in other European countries.

I’d be interested to know why this is so. My guess is that it might have something to do with our polarised education system, which in turn creates considerable social and economic distance between people from different socio-economic classes. It may also have to do with the strength of the low skills economy here, as well as the strong cultural stigma attached to low skills in Britain. These are (informed) guesses, and it’d be great to see some serious research on the issue.


The 2014 Survey also allowed for comparison of attitudes over time. For me, the most interesting finding here concerns the decline of race/ethnicity and religion as the basis for accepting immigrants, and the rise of skills and qualifications (along with command of the language). This suggests greater tolerance on one level, as well as a shift towards selection of immigrants on the basis of the capabilities that they bring. 

Is this connected with the educational polarisation that the Survey also reported? It could be that there is a degree of self-interest at work: the highly skilled and educated are the most mobile, and therefore can be expected to favour migration in general; the least skilled and educated are most vulnerable to competition from unskilled migrants, and therefore favour selection by skill. Or perhaps skills and qualifications now serve as a socially acceptable basis for discrimination (not only against foreigners, of course). But again, it would be worth going further into these figures to see what lies behind them.

Finally, the Survey also reports a small rise in those who think immigrants need to be committed to the British way of life. Exactly what this means is of course rather fuzzy, as the report makes clear. And we should remember that the Survey took place before the Brexit vote and before this year’s wave of terror attacks, whose effects on social attitudes are still unknown.