Adult learning and the election (5): the Democratic Unionist Party

Judging by my Twitter feed, everyone in Britain is suddenly an expert on the Democratic Unionist Party. Theresa May’s decision to invite the DUP to support a minority Conservative government has got everyone interested in Northern Ireland politics – or at least in finding out enough to pour scorn on May’s new partners. But beyond the parody and fluff of social media, what does the DUP stand for?

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I’m going to focus on one area and one area only: its policies for adult learning. I know all about the DUP’s social conservatism, its links with the Orange Order, and its support for Brexit. None of these concerns me in this post.

The DUP manifesto outlines plans for what it calls ‘An Industrial Renaissance for Northern Ireland’, which includes an industrial strategy aligned to the wider UK strategy.  One of the five core pillars of the DUP industrial strategy is given as ‘Enhancing Educattion, Skills and Employability’. This section of the manifesto offers quite a lot of detail about growth of tourism (unlikely to be a high skills sector) and maximising trade exports.

On skills, the manifesto outlines continued funding for the Assured Skills and Future Skills programmes, continuity for the apprenticeship system, a focus on digital skills in further and higher education, a closer alignment of degree courses with ‘the strong and emerging sectors of our economy’, and ‘increased involvement of industry in shaping the skills agenda’. What the latter means is unclear, but otherwise the focus is largely on tweaking existing activities.

The manifesto also includes the DUP’s proposals for education, but these are almost entirely concerned with schools and teaching. The most controversial is likely to be the  ‘removal of discrimination in teacher employment’, or in other words reshaping recruitment policy in Catholic schools. There is nothing more about adult learning, which is unsurprising given than the Northern Ireland Assembly Government has worked hard to dismantle the public adult education system.

Then the manifesto sets out 30 DUP demands for the Brexit settlement. These include a relaxed border with the Irish Republic, a renewed system of agricultural subsidies, and a ‘successful, outward-looking, knowledge-based economy for Northern Ireland’.

There are also three proposals for continued partnerships with the EU that are relevant to further and higher education:

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It is pretty obvious that the first of these is vague in the extreme; the second is vague and qualified; and the only example offered of the third is participation in the EC research programmes, which are almost certain to be uncontroversial in the final Brexit settlement. Oddly, and in contrast to the Conservatives, there appears to be no mention of the EU Structural Funds.

So Conservative ministers are unlikely to find themselves inspired by the DUP’s radical thinking on adult learning. On the other hand, the DUP are highly unlikely to find anything objectionable in the Conservative plans for adult learning, of which I take a reasonably positive view.

 

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Adult learning and the UK election: (2) the Labour Party

At the time of writing, the Labour Party looks set to come second in the election. If so, it will form the main opposition to the government, where its thinking on lifelong learning will inevitably have an impact on public debate, and will continue to develop in opposition. And Labour is still a major force in local and regional government, as well as forming the largest single party in Wales. So its ideas on lifelong learning matter.

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I’ve already summarised and criticised the Conservatives’ ideas on adult learning in a previous post. I’ll turn my attention to the Liberal Democrats and Greens in the next few days; UKIP can safely be ignored, as its manifesto says nothing about post-school education other than to call for lower student numbers in higher education and to propose a German-style (ironically) of dual system for apprentice training.

Like the Conservatives, Labour is using the manifesto to set out its broad industrial strategy. Labour’s manifesto says little directly about the role of skills in industrial strategy, other than proposing that public sector procurement should be used to leverage high employment standards, including providing training. Rightly, in my view, their industrial strategy focuses on growing the number of high value jobs, and thus increasing the demand for skills.

Skills supply is dealt with mainly in the context of Labour’s proposals for a National Education Service. What exactly is ‘National’ about it is unclear; Labour evidently intends not to remove education from the devolved administrations, but the manifesto underplays the fact that this would be a ‘National (English) Education Service’.

While this Service will somehow be ‘unified’, the manifesto does not suggest abolishing university autonomy or reducing the role of local government, and it does suggest devolving skills budgets to city regions, so at the moment it is completely unclear to me how and in what sense this will be a ‘National’ service, comparable to the NHS.

Labour’s plans for an NES have huge financial implications: the Service, it says, will ‘move towards cradle-to-grave learning that is free at the point of use’, incorporating ‘all forms of education, from early years through to adult education’. I guess (because it isn’t stated) that Labour believe or hope that higher skills will produce higher growth and thus raise the tax take.

Over two pages are devoted to a chapter on Skills. On further education, the manifesto calls for an end to constant structural change in the sector, and proposes investing in the sector through such measures as rebalancing the funding allocations between colleges and schools sixth forms, restoring Educational Maintenance Allowances, replacing tuition fees with a direct grant, and requiring all FE teaching staff to have a teaching qualification. It also proposes to restore cuts to UnionLearn, and to establish a Commission on Lifelong Learning tasked with integrating further and higher education.

On the whole this sounds like an attractive package, but there are several unanswered questions. Leaving aside the lack of clarity over the cost of these proposals, it is unclear who might be covered by the requirement to have a teaching qualification (what about part-time staff, for example?), and the rather general idea of ‘integrating further and higher education’ could mean anything from encouragement for local collaborative arrangements through to a fully-fledged tertiary system.

Most of the proposals for apprenticeships seem eminently sensible, and indeed are not a million miles away from Conservative thinking. Shifting the emphasis from recruitment targets to achievement at Level 3 is consistent with the aim of a high skills workforce. The idea of targets for ‘people with disabilities, care-leavers and veterans’ is worthwhile, though they will raise concerns about box-ticking and bureaucracy. And some will explode with fury over the very idea of incentives for large employers to over-train numbers of apprentices to fill skills gaps in the supply chain and the wider sector.

So far as higher education specifically is concerned, the manifesto limits itself to proposing free tuition and the reintroduction of maintenance grants. While this may be electorally popular, particularly among the better educated young voters, free tuition in particularly is highly socially regressive, especially as in England fees are not paid up front, and their repayment is means-tested. Nor is it clear how these measures will apply to part-time and distance students.

As the Learning and Work Institute rightly points out, the absence of any discussion of work insertion programmes for unemployed people is a massive gap, even allowing for the manifesto’s emphasis on the creation of good work: strikingly, neither the word ‘unemployed’ or ‘unemployment’ appear even once.

Nevertheless, this manifesto suggests that someone in Labour’s inner circles has been thinking hard about further education and adult learning. As the Party is likely to spend at least another five years in opposition, there is much to build on in a manifesto that offers plenty of encouragement for those of us involved in adult learning.