Adult learning and the UK election (1): The Conservatives

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.

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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.

 

 

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Skills and the regeneration of coastal communities

Coastal communities rarely make the headlines, but they are among the UK’s poorest areas. For every small former fishing port with a Michelin-starred restaurant there are dozens whose populations face unemployment, precariety and low pay. Educational standards are well below average, as are such critical infrastructural resources as transport and broadband.

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Whitby. Photo by R Jordan, licensed under Wikimedia Commons

These criticisms are hardly new, yet current government regeneration initiatives are failing. In the words of a new report from the British Hospitality Association, ‘policy across Government is uncoordinated and often at odds’. Instead, the BHA sets out a seven-point plan for central government – including the devolved administrations – to attract and promote opportunities for investment in coastal economies’.

Skills, I am pleased to see, are one of the key areas for investment. A large proportion of projects supported by the Lottery through the Coastal Communities Fund involved upskilling, and it would be rather nice to see a serious evaluation of these before going much further down this track. We might also ask why BHA members are not already doing far more to raise the skills and qualifications of their workforce. Still, it’s good to see the BHA recognise the need for improving skills.

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Point 6 of the BHA’s seven-point plan

Moreover, the BHA proposals for skills are placed within the context of growing demand for labour. I’ve blogged about skills and coastal communities before (see more here), expressing the view that far too much is said about skills supply and far too little about skills demand and utilisation. The question here is whether the BHA proposals, which rely heavily on tax breaks and infrastructure investment, are enough.

The basic economic problem of coastal communities derive from over-reliance on inherently low-skilled, low-paid industry sectors such as those related to tourism, which often also require part-time and seasonal workers. Seasonality of work also makes it difficult for workers to progress in their careers and reduces the incentive to train, as each job may be with a different employer. Part-time work promotes a tendency for people to hold multiple jobs, and again reduces the incentive to train for any of then.
Many of the most highly educated young people leave in order to attend university. Whatever their intentions at the time, they rarely return after graduating. Essentially, this means that new skills either have to be recruited from outside, or developed in the existing – ie adult – workforce. And adult education provision, for reasons of small scale and under-resourcing, is rarely a strong feature in these areas.
Tackling these structural problems is likely to require more than tax breaks and better infrastructure. It also means breaking the over-reliance of coastal communities on tourism and hospitality.This isn’t how the BHA sees it of course (their report offers the model of Folkestone, whose cultural quarter and triennial arts festival are designed to boost tourism).
Diversifying the economy is challenging, and not always comfortable for existing tourist businesses, as can be seen from the early controversies over the new offshore operations hub at Whitby, which has already started to recruit apprentices as well as bringing highly skilled workers into the town. One side effect has been to strengthen the local training system, with a small but successful fisheries school developing into other maritime areas. This seems to me a much better path to go down than further increasing these communities’ dependence on the low skill, low wage tourism sector.

Skills in a coastal community – the relentless tide of supply side thinking

As a citizen and ratepaper I have just responded to my local council’s consultation for its draft corporate plan. Called Towards 2030, the plan is intended to provide the overarching framework for the wide range of activities that Scarborough Borough Council undertakes on behalf of its population of just over 100,000 people.

At the moment, the Council is interested in our response to the four broad, high-level aims that it proposes to pursue. A cynic would say these are ‘apple pie’ statements, which focus on people, place, prosperity and the Council itself – all four lined up under the ambitious vision of ‘a prosperous Borough, with a high quality of life for all’.

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I had plenty to say about all this, but what struck me was how far the section on prosperity focused on education and skills.This includes turning the Borough into ‘the most highly skilled coastal community by 2030’, a target that I would bet my coffin will never be met (and will probably be quietly forgotten by 2020).

Coastal communities across Britain are generally characterised by low skills levels, and their economies are often characterised by a heavy reliance on low wage and precarious forms of employment. As a result, government has announced a series of initiatives to help regenerate coastal areas, with a major focus on training places and apprenticeships.

All this is of course fine. The problem, though, is that improving the skills and aspirations of young people (and adult workers) may well be highly desirable, but it will not create a highly skilled population. Far more probably, well-educated and highly-motivated workers will immediately move elsewhere to realise their ambitions and use their skills – as indeed they already do from coastal towns like Whitby, Scarborough and Filey.

Scarborough Borough Council is hardly alone in focussing on skills supply as the panacea for all ills. I can see why local government might look at local labour markets and decide that the solution to low skills is to train and educate the young. And the Council has done well in some respects, for example in securing the provision of a higher education campus in the Borough, with Coventry University offering a broad range of degrees.

The problem is that to retain skilled and motivated workers means raising the demand for skills, by promoting types of employment that will use and reward those skills. And in turn that means interventions of some sort to help reshape the local economy and move it up the value chain. These interventions, whether government-led or business-led, will inevitably be of a kind that so far local and devolved governments in the UK have been most reluctant to pursue.