Lifelong learning has played a much larger part in the 2017 UK election than I’d expected. All of the major parties have spoken about it during the campaign, and all allude to it in their manifestos. In looking at their policies for adult learning, I am going to start with the Conservatives. This is simply because it looks as though they are all but certain to form the next government, and their thinking is therefore rather more important than that of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens.
Overall, the Conservative manifesto has two characteristics that strike me as unusual. The first is that it is more centrist than I’d have anticipated, and more open about the role of government in securing well-being and prosperity than the Conservatives have been for some decades. Short of putting Arthur Scargill forward for the House of Lords she seems to have done everything to signal that the Conservatives under her leadership are non-ideological, and if anything represent the Disraeliite tradition of One-Nation Toryism.
The second unusual feature of the manifesto is the lack of practical detail. Almost none of the proposals have been costed, and so we have no idea how they will be funded; and there are very few timetables. This matters in the field of lifelong learning, as the manifesto has a number of interesting ideas in principle, but no indication of how they will be taken forward.
The first group of proposals on lifelong learning come in the section titled ‘A Modern Industrial Strategy’, which essentially carries on where the Government’s consultation over its Green Paper left off. Like the Green Paper, it emphasises that innovation and growth must be nation-wide, with an important role for skills alongside research, infrastructure and productivity growth.
There is to be a National Productivity Investment Fund of £23 billion, but no mention of where this will come from. It will be devoted almost entirely to the supply of skills, infrastructure and research, with no mention of the demand side.
Britain has in recent years used immigration to reduce the costs of skilled labour supply. The manifesto proposes that in future, companies employing migrant workers should pay a levy of £2,000 per worker, which will used to fund higher level skills training. This is potentially significant: some 93,843 Tier 2 skilled work visas were granted in the year ending September 2016, and Brexit is likely to lead to a rise in non-EU migration.
Potentially, then, the Conservatives’ promise looks rather similar in scale and purpose to Train to Gain. Unlike Train to Gain, it looks as though the new scheme will be developed on a UK-wide basis, at least in principle. Whether it is subsequently implemented across the UK or devolved to the four nations (and regionally within England) are good questions, which the manifesto does not answer.
There are also unanswered questions about the future replacement for the European Union structural funds. The new UK ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’ is designed to promote the government’s industrial strategy, but with lower administration costs than the Euroean schemes it will replace. As its name implies, the UKSPF is intended to cover the whole UK.
As the UK contributes far more to the structural funds than it receives, in principle the UKSPF should be far more generous, and have a greater impact. But the manifesto does not say how much it will allocate, and all practical and strategic details – including possible differences between the four nations – are to be left until after a post-election process of consultation. Little wonder that the Learning and Work Institute sees this as a prime area for post-election lobbying.
Then there are the proposals for apprenticeships. The manifesto confirms the target of 3 million apprentice places by 2020, which is welcome, but misleadingly claims that these will be for ‘young people’. Pointing out that almost a quarter of last year’s new apprentices were aged 35 or over, and that many are in existing rather than new jobs, Nick Linford has dismissed the Conservative claim as ‘a lie’.
Then there is to be a ‘review’ of funding across tertiary education. The aim of the review will be to offer value for money and ensure that Britons develop ‘the skills we need as a country’. While I’m encouraged that the review will cover further as well as higher education, I don’t know what is meant by ‘different routes’ (part-time? MOOCs?), and there is no clue as to what the government is minded to do, how much a changed system might cost, and how it will be funded – these are just plans for a review.
Finally, the manifesto sets out Conservative proposals for ‘career learning’. These come in a chapter on education which is rather self-importantly titled The World’s Great Meritocracy. In respect of ‘career learning’, this promises:
- A ‘new right to request leave for training for all employees’, but does not say how this will be enforced, nor what happens if requests are rejected. If it is simply an extension of existing rights to ask for time off to train, then it is hard to see how it will make any real difference: good employers will implement it, others will ignore it, and the costs of appeal to a tribunal will deter the vast majority from pursuing a rejected claim.
- A ‘national retraining scheme’ will be established to help workers stay in secure jobs, funded by the state; while the manifesto says that firms will be able to pay employee wages from the apprenticeship levy while they retrain (creating considerable deadweight), it does not say how government will decide which workers are eligible.
- A ‘right to lifelong learning in digital skills’; again, this is uncosted, and there is no hint as to its scale or how eligibility will be defined. And it is unclear whether this ‘right’ will be implemented across the UK, or solely in England.
Finally, it is worth adding that the ambition is to create nothing less than the best programme of learning and training for people in work and returning to work in the developed world. This impressive aim is not, though, accompanied by any reference to any actually existing programme of learning and training in any other country.
Nor has the manifesto anything to say about the existing adult learning landscape. It simply ignores the contribution of family learning and part-time higher education to social mobility, and says nothing about protecting the current adult skills budget. And – though no one should be surprised by this – its focus is on work-related lifelong learning.
Overall, the Conservative manifesto shows some obvious weaknesses, and is largely silent on detail. Nevertheless, it is more positive about lifelong learning than many of us might have expected, and several of its proposals are heading in the right direction – so much so that if the Conservatives form the next government, we should remind them frequently of their promises.