After more than a decade of stagnating productivity and real wages, the UK is facing a skills crisis.
Chronic under-investment by successive governments is one of the main causes, according to educators, with official statistics showing a quarter of job vacancies are hard to fill because of a lack of suitable candidates. The CBI, the employers’ organisation, estimates nine out of 10 workers will need to learn new skills for their own jobs by 2030, at a cost of £13bn annually.
The Department for Education last week revealed its plan to fix the slump in England. Its new Skills for Jobs white paper pledges to put employers “at the heart” of vocational education, with a central role creating almost all technical courses and designing programmes to meet local skills needs.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson called the policy a “blueprint for the future”. Business largely agreed: Matthew Fell, policy director for CBI, said it would put technical courses “in lockstep with industry needs” and give learners “confidence” their new skills would lead to jobs.
But while further education providers have welcomed the government’s renewed commitment to skills, it has a long way to go to tackle the scale of the country’s skills deficit.
Simply putting employers first will not undo decades of neglect in further education, critics have warned. Without better support for students and businesses, further education could remain inaccessible to many while placing unmanageable burdens on the employers it wants to help.
“We’re not quite there with this white paper,” said Tom Bewick, the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies. “It falls quite a bit short of helping to achieve a more cradle to grave, universalist, approach to life-long learning.”
Funding is one of the main issues. Data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies demonstrates the scale of the problem. Spending on adult education outside apprenticeships has fallen by two-thirds since 2003 in real terms. During the past decade of austerity, funding for colleges dropped 12 per cent, while the number of adults in further education has fallen sharply from 4.4m to 1.5m since 2004.
Some of those losses have been clawed back. A £2.5bn National Skills Fund, announced last year, will finance many of the white paper’s projects, and the government has promised to “consult” on a multiyear funding regime.
But in the middle of a one-year spending round, and with government finances constrained by impact of the coronavirus pandemic, there is still plenty of uncertainty around funding for further education.
“Unless this comes with investment you are going to be only able to implement tweaks and small-scale initiatives,” said Fiona Aldridge, head of policy at the Learning and Work Institute. “The resources need to be there to match the ambition.”
Sue Pember, the policy director of Holex, which represents adult education providers, was concerned that the approach was “overfocused on employers”, which may not leave enough resources to help people that need support to access education.
While Mr Williamson has been vocal about his wish for a vocational, “German-style” further education system, she added, he had neglected aspects such as employee representation on management boards that make the German system work. “You can’t just cherry-pick the bits you like.”
Educators have welcomed government plans for a “lifetime skills guarantee” that will make post-16 learning easier, including a commitment that entitles all adults, who do not have one, a free A-level equivalent, or level 3, qualification.
Changes to funding rules will also allow students to access loans for higher technical courses, just as they do now for university degrees, and the government will pilot new types of short-term courses focused on specific skills.
But access to student finance will not be available until 2025 and so far the government has only committed to consulting on whether it would cover the costs of living. Critics warn plans to offer loans rather than grants could deter students from low-income backgrounds.
Mr Bewick said he was also concerned that the eligibility for level 3 courses was “too narrow”: a newly unemployed person would be barred from free training if, for example, they had a decades-old A-level in geography, he said. “We need to see a much wider array of qualifications and flexible credentials being made available at all levels.”
Unions said more needed to be done to meet students’ needs. Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said the “employer-led” approach left people with “too little control over their learning and skills”.
But in putting employers first, the government is also expecting more from business while giving limited details about available support. The white paper proposes that chambers of commerce and colleges set up hubs for developing local skills, drawing from a £65m pool of funding.
And businesses have been told to expand on-the-job training, including offering 45 days of work experience for 16-year-olds taking the new vocational T-level qualification.
David Hughes, the managing director of the Advanced Manufacturing Training Centre, said businesses were ready to “come to the table”, but would need more help from the government.
“Support and resources have to be given to SMEs to be able to create the space to deliver the skills they need for the future,” he said.
Sean Mackney, principal of Petroc College in Barnstaple, south-west England, said the economic damage caused by the pandemic may make it “tricky” for training providers and colleges to get employers on board, especially in high-demand areas such as health and social care and for younger students.
“At a time when employers are just trying to keep their heads above water, they’re going to struggle to really give the attention they need,” he said.
Critics are hoping the government has learned from previous mistakes. Its most recent attempt to put employers at the heart of further education ran into problems.
A 2017 scheme to expand workplace training through the introduction of an apprenticeship levy instead led to a fall in the number of apprentices, in part due to employers struggling with the demands of training and bureaucracy.
Mark Dawe, the chief executive of the Skills Network, said his own experience supporting businesses to take on apprenticeships showed employers were not always best prepared to manage training and skills.
“It’s not their core business,” he said. “It should be employer-informed, not employer led.”