Skills and hostility to migration

Today saw publication of the results from the 34th British Social Attitudes Survey. Every year, a team of social researchers asks a sample of around 3,000 people about their views on current social issues. You can find the results on the NatCen website: http://www.natcen.ac.uk, and I always find them well worth reading.


The 2014 Survey included some revealing questions on people’s attitudes to immigration. We already know from previous research that the most highly educated individuals tend to be the most welcoming towards immigrants. Because the Survey belongs to an international consortium of similar studies, we can compare this pattern across countries. The results show that when analysed by level of education, attitudes in Britain are more polarised than in other European countries.

I’d be interested to know why this is so. My guess is that it might have something to do with our polarised education system, which in turn creates considerable social and economic distance between people from different socio-economic classes. It may also have to do with the strength of the low skills economy here, as well as the strong cultural stigma attached to low skills in Britain. These are (informed) guesses, and it’d be great to see some serious research on the issue.


The 2014 Survey also allowed for comparison of attitudes over time. For me, the most interesting finding here concerns the decline of race/ethnicity and religion as the basis for accepting immigrants, and the rise of skills and qualifications (along with command of the language). This suggests greater tolerance on one level, as well as a shift towards selection of immigrants on the basis of the capabilities that they bring. 

Is this connected with the educational polarisation that the Survey also reported? It could be that there is a degree of self-interest at work: the highly skilled and educated are the most mobile, and therefore can be expected to favour migration in general; the least skilled and educated are most vulnerable to competition from unskilled migrants, and therefore favour selection by skill. Or perhaps skills and qualifications now serve as a socially acceptable basis for discrimination (not only against foreigners, of course). But again, it would be worth going further into these figures to see what lies behind them.

Finally, the Survey also reports a small rise in those who think immigrants need to be committed to the British way of life. Exactly what this means is of course rather fuzzy, as the report makes clear. And we should remember that the Survey took place before the Brexit vote and before this year’s wave of terror attacks, whose effects on social attitudes are still unknown. 

Vocational education on parade: a microcosm of German’s dual system

berufskolleg2

I’m currently living in Cologne, where I’m fortunate enough to have a visiting post at the university. My blog in the coming months will likely contain more pieces on German education than usual.

This time I want to write about Karneval, supposedly a way of marking the onset of Lent, but actually a massive celebration of everything Kölsch. The central features of Karneval are that five days of fancy dress, drinking, and parades. The parades range from local neighbourhood activities through to the four-hour march and ride by members of the Karneval associations (many of whom dress in eighteenth century military uniforms). In the middle comes the Schulzöch, or schools parade, involving secondary pupils and members of various local clubs, wearing home-made fancy dress.

berufskolleg1

Among the 49 schools who paraded this year were the staff and pupils of Berufskolleg Ehrenfeld. The Berufskollege in the Land of Nordrhein-Westfalen are secondary level institutions who accept young people who have completed their ten years of compulsory education, most of whom will have an apprenticeship contract with a local employer, and leads to a formal examination and certificate on completion.

This represents a highly structured pathway into skilled employment. Pupils can expect a combination of college-based and work-based learning, with a mixture of vocational and general education. On conclusion they can, if they wish, move on to higher education, through a Fachhochschul (broadly, a technical university).

Let me take the role of baker, a trade which requires three years of workplace experience, combined with college instruction in work organisation, production techniques, and sales, as well as politics, social science, German, sport and health, communications, and religious studies. In short, the aim remains that of a well-trained baker with a rounded skillset.

From a UK perspective, two things stand out about this pattern. The first is the specialist nature of the Berufskolleg, which is defined as a school with a specific purpose; to our eyes, it would look like a form of streaming, in which kids are placed rigidly at age 16 on different pathways. Second, the highly structured combination of academic and workplace learning over three years, including continuing experiences of general education, is a long way from the mishmash of programmes of different lengths and types that are branded as apprenticeships in the UK.

The German system has its critics, but it is generally held to be a gold standard against which other European transitions are judged. Naturally I can’t speak for the quality of the training and education at the Berufskolleg Ehrenfeld. What I can say is that the bread in Ehrenfeld is, as almost everywhere in Germany, wonderful.

How healthy is UK research on higher, adult, further and vocational education?

You’d have to be a hermit not to have heard about the recent assessment of research in UK universities. The results were reported, and discussed, well beyond the shores of these islands. Overall, the panel for Education decided that 96% of the research submitted was of international quality, with 30% of the total being ranked as 4-star, or at the very highest level of quality.

These published results are for the discipline as a whole; we don’t know exactly how the panel rated research into adult learning or other forms of non-school education. But we can get a broad impression of how different sub-areas were viewed, as the panels have now published ‘overview reports’ for their discipline.

The overview report for Education devoted one paragraph to its views on research in higher education and one on further, adult and vocational education. Both were largely positive about the quality of what the panel saw, but the overview also notes a clear decline in the volume of research that universities submitted in further,adult and vocational education.

ref higher ed

REF adult ed

Are these generally positive judgements reasonable ones? I suspect that, bearing mind that universities are very selective in what they submit for assessment, it is hard to disagree with them. It is also clear that a lot of research capacity in adult, further and vocational education has been lost in the UK, and replacing it in future will be extremely challenging.

Some may think this is because the sub-area is always treated in educational studies as smething of an after-thought. And if you are in the mood for a good conspiracy theory, then notice that while the sub-header of the second paragraph refers to ‘adult’ education, the text mistakenly refers to ‘higher’ education, which hardly suggests that the panel paid close attention to the content of this paragraph.

Skills beyond school: the role of short cycle higher vocational qualifications

The OECD has just published a new report, Skills beyond school – England, which recommends a significant increase in one- and two-year vocational programmes. Fewer than 10% of young people in England currently take a short vocational programme in mid-level skills, compared with up to one third in other OECD countries. The OECD report makes a number of recommendations designed to make short vocational programmes more attractive.

As an aside, the OECD calls these ‘short’ programmes, which is ironic given that you can take an entire apprenticeship within a year. Damaging as this might be for the reputation of British apprenticeships, though, it’s a side issue in this particular context.

If the Department for Business Innovation and Skills wants to learn some easy lessons, it could do worse than look across the border to Scotland. I’m not one of those people who think everything in education is better in Scotland – far from it – but we do have considerable experience of a large programme of short cycle higher education, largely taught in non-university settings. So what can we learn from the Scottish example?

  • It is a sizeable system. One in every three higher education students in Scotland is in a college, taking an HNC/HND. These courses are highly attractive, partly because they are locally offered (there is a college campus in virtually every community of every size), and partly because they are flexible, with many of the students following part-time routes.
  • Short cycle higher education widens participation. While universities in Scotland recruit students who come mainly from the upper socio-economic groups, colleges overwhelmingly recruit the less advantaged.
  • The system has a bias towards employability. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in the kinds of subject that the OECD might have in mind: the largest number of HNCs and HNDs are awarded in business and management, followed by health, then creative arts and design. Engineering and computing are significant in size, but are far from the most popular subjects. Nevertheless, broadly speaking, the system fits the vocational model recommended by OECD.
  • Short cycle qualifications appear to be valued in the labour market. Studies of the earnings effects of HNCs and HNDs show that average salaries are lower than for a degree, but clearly above the earnings of those who have lower level qualifications. However, we don’t have many such studies, and none cover the period since the onset of the recession.

So the Scottish system of short cycle higher education, delivered in non-university contexts, has some clear strengths. But anyone looking for easy lessons should also be aware that the Scottish system has come at a cost.

One is that over time, short cycle higher education has tended to crowd vocational further education out. The proportion of college students registered for HNCs and HNDs has held steady over the past seven or eight years, but the number on so-called ‘non-advanced’ courses has fallen. I don’t know whether this is because colleges see higher education as more prestigious, or because it is financially advantageous, or for some other reason, but that is what has happened.

Another problem is that increasingly, the focus has narrowed down to initial full-time courses. For twenty years, the expanded short cycle programmes formed part of a lifelong learning system, attracting many adults through their flexibility and relevance. As the Scottish Government has sought savings to protect its university spending (particularly its policy on tuition fees), so it has slashed back on part-time routes to HNCs and HNDs.

Lastly, while short cycle courses have helped to increase higher education participation and widen it, Scottish universities have remained stubbornly selective in their intake. Scotland has a two tier system, where the colleges’ success in widening access allows the universities to carry on with business as usual. We may not have selection at 11, but higher education is effectively streamed.

So there’s plenty to chew on if England is to expand its vocational system in the direction recommended by OECD. Certainly, given the scandals over poor quality apprenticeships and unpaid ‘training’ schemes, a move up market would not go amiss. But it needs to be done in a way that helps contribute towards lifelong learning rather than damaging it.

More on NALS 2010 – firing a shotgun at both feet?

My previous blog looked at the huge decline in participation in adult learning recorded by the National Adult Learning Survey. My quick analysis showed that while overall participation fell by 11% from the level of 80% recorded in 2005, it had fallen faster and further for some groups than others. Essentially, I showed that policy makers had decided to penalise older learners and the least educated, and had also undermined the role of adult learning in promoting social mobility. 

This blog turns to the ways in which different types of learning have been eroded by recent government policies. After the Leitch Review of skills, the Labour Government in 2007 decided to concentrate public funding on vocational skills and on courses leading to a Level 2 qualification. This policy has been continued by the Coalition and has also been adopted by the Nationalist Government in Scotland. 

NALS shows that in practice, this narrow policy goal has failed. Since 2005, participation in courses leading to qualifications has fallen by 7%, and participation in skills-related courses has fallen by 6%. The number learning for professional development has fallen by 10%. They couldn’t even get this right – by attacking the lifelong learning system, in effect, successive governments have managed to erode the vocational training that they claimed to be endorsing and prioritising. 

Future intentions have also been damaged. The proportion who say they are not likely to take future job-related learning has increased by 9% since 2005, while the proportion who are ‘very likely’ to do so fell by 14%. 

Unsurprisingly, cost emerges as a major issue. While the two surveys are not directly comparable, the price paid by most learners in 2010 was considerably higher than in 2005, and the proportion of people who identified price as an obstacle was also much larger. Again, this reflects Labour policies, including the abolition (in England) of Individual Learning Accounts and the attack on those adult and further education courses that did not meet Ministers’ policy priorities. 

Finally, it is interesting to compare the NALS results with Geoff Mason’s study of the Labour Force Survey. Mason reported a growth in participation between 1999 and 2002, followed by a decline from 2003 to 2009; this included a decline in vocational training over the same period. While this is broadly consistent with NALS, Mason’s more detailed analysis was not so easily squared with NALS. In particular, he found that older workers’ participation (50-59) stayed constant, nor did he find above-average falls for the least well qualified. 

These surveys are conducted in different ways, so it is not surprising that they produce different results. It would be good to see an independent researcher taking a closer look at the NALS dataset, to ask a more – and more detailed – questions about the trends between 2005 and 2010. At present, though, it looks to me like a clear story of policy failure.

The NALS report is at: www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/further-education-skills/docs/n/12-p164-national-adult-learner-survey-2010.pdf

Geoff Mason’s study is at: http://www.llakes.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/GM-paper-15-online.pdf

The importance of honest skills: Russian education

Visiting Moscow, I was interested and surprised to see some local journalists describing British schools as a positive benchmark. When it comes to the use of new technologies for teaching, apparently we have one of the world’s more advanced systems. One report, for example, noted that while fewer than 17% of Russian classrooms were equipped with interactive whiteboards, 75% had this particular bit of kit in Britain.

This was refreshing for me, coming from an island where moaning about ourselves could well become the next Olympic sport. Of course, what matters is not whether the technology is in place, but also how we use it. But my interest was sparked off in quite another direction, which is the economic pathway being followed by Russian capitalism. While most countries are looking to education and research as central to economic innovation and sustainability, Russia appears to be relying on a combination of access to natural resources and hospitable regulatory frameworks for trade.

By all the conventional indicators, this approach is proving remarkably successful. The IMF calculates that output per head – once at laughably low levels compared with Western Europe – has already overtaken Portugal, and will shortly overtake Spain. Public debt is low. The public signs of affluence and growth are all too visible – if anything, the Moscow city-region may well be over-heating, with workers increasingly unable to live within commuting distance of their jobs.

What is less clear is whether this pattern of high growth is sustainable. Very visibly, it is leaving a lot of people behind. The elderly, and pensioners in particular, are largely excluded from the new wealth. Furthermore, the growth is largely a product of high energy prices. Once oil and gas production start to decline, this factor will perforce become less important.

Third, government and business transactions often proceed through networks of corruption. Even a casual visitor can spot the exchanges of bribes that are needed for people to bend the rules and make things happen. When it comes to international business transactions, though, corruption is a problem. I am not so naive as to suppose that western bankers and manufacturers will not offer a ‘bung’ – it is more that a culture of corruption introduces new levels of uncertainty and risk, and undermines long term confidence and trust.

And impressive Russian growth has not yet been accompanied by increased investment in education and skills, or in research, at the levels achieved in recent years by other fast-growing economies like China.  Just 3.8% of GDP is allocated to education, compared with 5.3% in the UK and over 8% in Malaysia and Denmark.

Things are not too bad in the sprawling higher education sector. Teaching standards enjoy a relatively high reputation, and Russia joined the Bologna process in 2003. It has amended its degree structures in line with the bachelors/masters system common across the whole of Europe. Nevertheless, even though public funding has risen, it has done so from a low base and under-funding is causing problems.

Some of the best Russian scholars now work in western universities, while the remaining academics are often isolated from the rest of the world. The country’s universities come nowhere in the international league tables. The system has expanded partly by creating new institutions, often privately funded, and this is raising questions about quality and effectiveness. And of course, Russian graduates enter a labour market where key decisions can be made on the basis of connections and corruption, not ability, conditions that hardly favour meritocracy.

So far as lifelong learning is concerned, Russia has a fragmented scatter of institutions, many of them left over from – and more or less damaged by – the past. Understandably, it is mainly oriented towards vocational adult education, with a smaller provision of more general types of education. Russia faces a general process of social aging, but is currently tackling skills shortages by attracting young immigrant workers, mostly from the former member states of the USSR.

So if education generally is neglected, adult education is in a dire position. A recent report from the European Association for Adult Education describes the state-directed institutes for vocational adult education as ‘conservative’ and highly institutional. And while there are organisations who campaign for a more civic and socially purposeful approach to lifelong learning, their influence is limited. They could probably benefit from our support.

EAEA’s report on Russian adult education is available at: http://www.eaea.org/doc/pub/Country-Report-on-Adult-Education-in-Russia.pdf