France’s personal training accounts were a great idea – what is going wrong?

When the French government introduced its personal training account (CPF, compte personnel de formation) scheme in early 2015, it was in the hope of promoting an upsurge in reskilling. Yet according to a recent survey, less than a third of workers have opened up their online account, almost a quarter say they haven’t heard of the scheme, and only 7.2% have benefited from training under the scheme. What has gone wrong?

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First, I should make clear that the survey shows signs of progress. While only 31% said they’d activated their account in the 2018 survey, that is up on a mere 20% in the previous year. Those who benefited have risen from 3.6% last year.

Still, compared with the government’s ambitions, these figures are sobering. They also contrast with the popularity of similar systems elsewhere; whatever you think of the British Individual Learning Accounts, they were certainly widely used. And to me, the idea of time off work to train with costs paid should be pretty appealing.

I don’t know why the CPF has failed so far to take off. It was well-publicised, and it is a reasonably generous scheme. Jobs are changing in France as elsewhere, and ever more will be affected as a result of digitiation, AI, and other tech changes, so upskilling makes sense for enterprises and individuals.

Perhaps it’s just that the accounts are simply unattractive to French workers? Or maybe the scheme is over-bureaucratic? If you know more, please let us all know!

 

 

Does anyone know what became of the Liberal Democrats’ Lifelong Learning Commission?

Last summer, the Liberal Party announced that it had put together a Commission on Lifelong Learning. This followed a conference speech by party leader Vince Cable in autumn 2017, backing the widely-discussed idea of a national system of learning accounts, accessible at any stage of life. This in itself followed the Party’s manifesto commitment in the 2017 election to an ambitious expansion in adult learning, including those famous learning accounts.

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Vince Cable – image licensed under Creative Commons

Chaired by Rajay Naik, a prominent specialist in marketing higher education and formerly Director of Government and External Affairs at the Open University, the Commission was supposed to flesh out these bold ideas. It was launched with the promise that the membership and timescale would be announced in weeks, with the formal consultation process following ‘shortly’ afterwards. The membership was revealed in June 2018, with a number of high profile individuals in its ranks, including Stephen Evans from the Learning and Work Institute, Ruth Spellman from the Workers Educational Association, Matthew Taylor from the Royal Society for the Arts, and Polly Mackenzie, of the think tank Demos.

Since then, I’ve seen and heard nothing further. Of course Cable has announced his plans to retire, and his Party – as the only organised parliamentary expression of support for the European Union – has its hands full. And this year yet another group has established its own commission on adult learning, with Ruth Spellman once again among the members, so we’re not facing a sudden dearth of commissions and reports. Still, it’s a pity if the Liberal Democrats have lost interest in lifelong learning as a result.

Unlike some of my chums, who see the Liberal Democrats as a marginal, I think their views matter. Quite apart from their possible role in any future coalition, they have significant influence in local government, and they can help shape public debate. Further, the idea of learning accounts is worth exploring, and any constructive thinking should be welcome to policy makers of any colour. Creating a lifelong learning commission attracted press publicity and generated hope. Is anyone in a position to say whether it still exists, and if so what it is doing?

 

Transforming Adult Learning: the case of South Korea

South Korea is a fascinating country for a lot of different reasons. To snatch a few random reasons why I love the place, public transport is fantastic, the food is superb, and you’re never without a view of the mountains. It has high education standards, though these are infamously linked to high stress levels among students. And the fine walled city of Suwon is busy becoming a model learning city.

Now the country is transforming its support for adult learning. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education announced its fourth Lifelong Learning Plan. Covering the period 2018-22, the Plan envisages

  • a guarantee of lifelong learning rights (including paid training leave and targeted learning vouchers) for every citizen;
  • a focus on lifelong learning in preparation for job change, exploiting the potential of MOOcs and personalised learning;
  • promoting lifelong learning in other areas of life, with stronger local and regional instgitutions and support for civic completence;
  • improving quality, for example through monitoring performance and making better use of participation statistics.

Th use of vouchers was already proposed in the country’s second lifelong learning plan, which set out proposals for a pilot scheme involving 50,000 basic livelihood support recipients aged over 20. What became of the pilot scheme I do not yet know, but I will return to it here if and when I find out.

Broadly, the Plan seems to me strategically focussed, while broad enough to embrace people’s different life areas. Hopefully we’ll be able to see how it develops over time, as there are bound to be interesting lessons for other nations.

A Lifelong Learning and Training Account Act for the USA?

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Learning and training accounts continue to attract attention from policy makers interested in widening participation in adult learning. A wide variety of voucher and credit schemes have now been trialled, from the UK’s Individual Learning Accounts through France’s Compte personnel de formation to Singapore’s SkillsFuture Credit. All have in common the idea of incentivising learners through financial support rather than funding providers (though obviously the two are not mutually exclusive.

Now comes the USA’s turn. Following the Democrats’ success in the mid-term elections, two members of Congress have announced their intention to introduce a Lifelong Learning and Training Account Act. If passed, the law will enable States and public agencies to create systems of employee-owned accounts to help meet the costs of participation in training.

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Mark Warner (Democrat, VA), one of the two member of Congress who sponsored the Act

Eligibility is restricted: those who are entitled to an account must be workers aged 25 to 60, with incomes of up to $82,000. The accounts themselves are to be paid for by a combination of employers and workers together with matched federal funding of up to $1,000; and the sum is to be exempt from taxation. It can be only spent on training costs, not including food or accommodation.

There are also restrictions on the type of training that is eligible. The training must meet certain criteria; the intended outcome must include a recognised post-secondary credential , and the provider must belong to a number of specified categories (including community colleges, industry associations, and labour organisations).

This is a potentially interesting development, and I look forward to seeing how it develops. I don’t know enough about US politics to guage its chances of success, but it chimes with at least one Trump goal, which is to boost the employability and skills of US workers. It is not, though, confined to funding work-related training, and it is focused on the lowest-paid, so it could be quite significant in widening participation in types of learning that workers can choose for themselves.

If it comes off, the Act will add to our understanding of credit and voucher systems in adult learning. So watch this space.

Funding adult skills in France: here comes the ‘big bang’

Considerable controversy has surrounded President Macron’s plans for labour reform in France, especially measures designed to promote labour flexibility and limit trade union powers. Less widely reported are parallel interventions to promote skills and learning, but this is where the focus is now moving.

The politician responsible for the labour reforms is Muriel Pénicaud, an experienced human resources manager who became Minister of Labour in May 2017. After completing her first set of labour reforms last year, Pénicaud has turned her attention to training and skills, an area where she (and Macron) believe existing French policies to be antiquated and inefficient.

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“The training system is neither fair nor equitable”: unequal participation

On 5 March, the Minister announced the long-awaited content of her reforms, claiming that they had been ‘largely’ agreed with employers and unions. Above all, there are new arrangements for personal training accounts, or compte personnel de formation: whereas the old system was counted in time, the new entitlement will be calculated in cash, with the funds being collected through the social insurance system. Each individual employee’s account will be credited with €500 a year, capped at a total of €5,000; those with low skills will have a higher sum of €800 a year, capped at €8,000.

Further changes will bring part-time workers into the system, as well as absorbing the congé individuel de formation (CIF) into the CFP. A new tripartite agency, France compétences, will regulate the training costs and scrutinise quality, to avoid the kind of malpractice that dogged the initial foray into learning accounts in England and that has marred the CPF to date.

How much of this will happen is another matter. France’s unions and employers’ associations responded with their own counter-proposals. Pénicaud has initially dismissed these as too modest and conservative, arguing that what was needed was les incremental change than a ‘big bang’ (the French for which turns out to be – yes, big bang) which combined radical reform with a simplification of a complex and inefficient status quo.

Pénicaud’s ‘big bang’ also extends to other areas of skills pilicy. She is in discussion with social partners over how to improve skills levels among the unemployed, and has initiated discussions on an overhaul and expansion of the apprenticeship system. Taken together, these reforms will unsettle relationships not only with the unions buts also with employers’ organisations and France’s powerful regional governments. The outcome is still uncertain, but I’m backing Pénicaud to win.

Funding adult learners – the case of Singapore

I’ve posted in the past about financial support for adult learners in Germany and in France. These are both fellow large European countries, and there are some interesting lessons for other similar countries like my own. After a brief Twitter exchange with Stephen Evans of the Learning and Work Institute I thought it might be a good time to look at the case of Singapore, a country with a similar population in terms of size (5.6 million) to Scotland or Yorkshire.

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In 2015 Singapore introduced a virtual voucher system, known as SkillsFuture Credit, which forms part of a wider national SkillsFuture strategy for lifelong learning. Open to all national citizens aged over 25, SkillsFuture Credit involves an initial government injection into your account of S$500, followed by periodic top-ups over time.

SkillsFuture Credit pays for courses provided by a range of eligible, largely publicly-funded institutions, including the arts, sports and so-called ‘lifestyle’ courses offered through the state-sponsored People’s Association, and the courses for seniors offered through the National Silver Academy network.

Initially channeled to the citizen to pay fees, from 19 May 2017 SkillsFuture Credit has been disbursed to training providers, with the exception of course fees for overseas MOOCs. This follows a decision to take enforcement action against 4,400 individuals who have reportedly submitted false claims.

Otherwise the system seems to be working well. More than 126,000 Singaporeans used their SkillsFuture credit by the end of the scheme’s inaugural year in 2016. The most popular area for using the credit was information technology, including a large number of older adults who were learning basic IT, often for the first time; second most popular was foreign languages. Some 6% of claims were in respect of MOOCs.

It is probably too early to make any confident claims about Singapore’s system as a model for other countries. The administrative procedures have been revised several times, and taken with the allegations of fake claims this suggests that there have been teething problems. And some will find the range of eligible courses too restricted, with its strong – but far from inclusive – emphasis on skills for innovation.

Yet the scale of take-up is impressively large for a relatively small state, and the financial commitment is admirable. So at the very least, Singapore confirms what can be done by a government determined to promote a culture of lifelong learning.