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.

New Picture

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.

What do populisms of Left and Right have in common? Armin Nassehi on the attraction of simple solutions

 

During the Scottish referendum, and during recent visits to Germany and Sweden, I’ve been pondering the rise of radical populist movements. I know much less about the Front National in France or Syriza in Greece than I do about Pegida, UKIP and the SNP, of course. Still, I am impressed by the levels of support that these diverse movements are attracting. And in different ways, they both present and express a significant challenge to the established political order. What does this all mean for active citizenship in modern European countries like our own?

nassehi

Armin Nassehi is a German sociologist whose work deals with what ‘society’ might mean in contemporary conditions. He has published fifteen books and who knows how many articles, and he was co-editor (with Ulrich Beck) of the leading journal Soziale Welt. He is particularly interested in the relationship between social science and political activity, and has been recognised for his contribution to intercultural dialogue.

Nassehi’s work, unlike Beck’s, is not yet available in English, but his concerns are hardly limited to the borders of Germany. This week he gave an interview to a German newspaper on the electoral success of populist parties, Left and Right, in a number of European countries (oddly, Germany was been the main exception to this trend – until the recent rise of the largely non-electoral Pegida movement).

Given the wider relevance of the topic, I thought I’d share at least a few extracts. After all, the number of people who do not feel themselves represented by the established political parties seems to be large, and growing in many countries. Is Nasshi right that populism appeals to those who feel baffled and powerless in the face of modern social complexity?

Asked why voters appear so fascinated with parties who reject established political structures, Nassehi agreed that these parties claim that:

everything in society is going wrong. But there is also a constructive element: it is suggested that there are simple ways of changing the world. On the Right there is the idea that a more ethnically homogeneous society will create more solidarity and more cohesive governance. On the Left there is the idea that societies can be governed and rebuilt centrally.

For Nassehi, this implies that while there are differences between Left and Right populisms, there are also similarities:

Modern societies are complex. Many citizens don’t want to deal with that. That’s why parties promise simple solutions – from Left and Right. The Left is generally more attractive because it works with universalistic arguments and demands for justice. But the new Left parties deny the complexity of society as much as the Right. They persuade us that there are simple levers with which one can change things. But modern societies are not made in such a one-dimensional way.

Nassehi’s proposal is that the traditional concerns of the political parties must be transformed into what he calls ‘new complexity challenges’. Precisely what that means in practice is not clear – but perhaps that is his point.

And while the established media seem incapable of investigating and debating ‘complexity challenges’, more and more people are drawn towards digital communications to express their views and exchange information and ideas. Spaces for active digital citizenship really start to matter.