The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a Harvard senior fellow
If there’s one word guaranteed to assuage liberal guilt in modern meritocracies, it is “skills”. Every Davos workshop on inequalities concludes that education is the best way to help the poor. But while the theory is fine, an elite made up largely of university graduates is rarely confronted with the reality encountered by the large numbers of citizens who have never been to university, and never will.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson has described his plans for training and skills as “rocket fuel” for levelling up the nation. But if he is to reduce damaging regional differences in productivity, he must reverse funding cuts and blow up a labyrinthine bureaucracy which puts monstrous obstacles in the way of people who want to train.
Twenty-first century humans don’t fit the 20th-century silos of higher education, further education, apprenticeships and adult education. People learn at different speeds, and will need different kinds of courses at different times. Intriguingly, the middle class has woken up to this, Instead of the old snobbery about vocational education being for “other people’s children”, a new survey finds that almost as many middle-class parents now want their child to take a vocational qualification (43 per cent) as want their child to go to university (45 per cent).
Whitehall, nevertheless, has continued to give a raw deal to those over-16s not destined for university. Funding per student for further education colleges has fallen by more than any other education sector in the past 10 years. And the sector is saddled with a profusion of bewildering qualifications, inflexible regulators and cowboy training providers who herd people on to unsatisfactory or poorly designed courses.
The message to learners is effectively, “If at first you don’t succeed . . . then you won’t succeed”. Even good institutions struggle to help those who want to better themselves, but don’t fit into any of the existing narrow templates. According to the 2019 Augar review of education and funding, there are around 6m British adults without a so-called level 2 qualification — that is, five good passes at GCSE or a technical certificate in a skill such as bricklaying.
At the moment, the state funds everyone who wants to pass GCSE English and mathematics. But anyone wanting to take another level 2 qualification must pay half the costs themselves, if they are aged over 24 with a job. That is a tax on aspiration, and surely a false economy in a nation struggling with low productivity. The total number of “full” level 2 adult learners has fallen from 400,000 in 2012-13 to just over 50,000 in 2017-18.
Things aren’t much better one step up at level 3, which is equivalent to A- level. When learners turn 19 they hit a cliff edge, where they are no longer entitled to full funding on all courses, and get almost nothing if they already have two A-levels but want to retrain for a different job. The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee has described these funding arrangements as a “straitjacket” which “prevents retraining”.
There is an urgent need for change, and Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech contained two proposals which could prove highly significant. The first is a pledge to give all adults four years’ worth of student loans to take at any point in their life, to be used inside or outside university. This should create an incentive for people to keep learning, while also being savvy about the value they get. The second proposal would give all adults lacking A-levels, or the equivalent, access to state funding, offering the prospect of removing the perverse incentives which have discouraged so many people at levels 2 and 3.
The obvious risk is that this could cost the taxpayer a great deal of money, without achieving much. Attempts to introduce life-long learning in 2000 cost millions of pounds, and collapsed amid claims of fraud. Even today, the quality of training and college courses varies enormously. Four years ago, the UK’s largest adult training provider was heavily criticised by the regulator for poor quality courses.
Far better quality control is needed, with a tracking of the impact that courses have on earnings. If levelling up is to become a reality, the high priests of qualifications must also adopt a much more responsive approach to employers in local areas who might want to work with a college to fill current vacancies, or offer modules rather than full courses.
Yet if the details can be worked out, the opportunity is enormous, especially when it comes to the higher technical qualifications which sit between A-levels and university degrees. Despite employers seeking more computer programmers, engineers, electricians and healthcare technicians, only around 10 per cent of UK adults hold a higher technical qualification as their highest qualification, compared with 20 per cent in Germany and 34 per cent in Canada.
Downing Street is serious about trying to make this work. It also has a secret weapon in Alison Wolf, whose landmark report in 2011 found that many good vocational courses and institutions existed “in spite of” the funding and regulatory system. Prof Wolf is one of the few people who can wade through the treacle of the system and emerge with a clear vision of what is required.
There is a long way to go, however. The government will need to hold its nerve to achieve value for money and push back against vested interests.
Ultimately, the real test will be whether the system can send the message that “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again — and we will help”.