From the TUC

Building our technical skills: the Industrial Strategy Green Paper

26 Jan 2017, by in Politics

This week the Government has made a great deal of its proposals on skills in the Industrial Strategy Green Paper. A BEIS press release came out last weekend entitled Technical education at heart of modern industrial strategy and this echoed the longstanding refrain that the UK has world class universities, but by comparison “technical education for school leavers has been neglected.”

It is of course no coincidence that many other European countries with higher productivity levels have a much better record than the UK when it comes to offering a high proportion of young people access to high quality apprenticeships and/or technical education.

The planned overhaul of technical education set out in the Green Paper is by and large drawn from the recommendations of the Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education chaired by Lord Sainsbury, which the government responded to in its Post-16 Skills Plan (both documents available here). The TUC has given its support to the thrust of these reforms and also the policy decision to integrate the technical education and apprenticeships systems (e.g. in April a new national body called the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education will come into place).

We provided more detail on our view of the proposed reform of technical education in our recent submission to the Technical and Further Education Bill Committee, including around two outstanding challenges. First, whilst it is welcome that the Green Paper says that the reforms will draw on the technical education models in other European countries (e.g. Germany and Norway) this is easier said than done. A major omission in the Green Paper (and the Post-16 Skills Plan) is that there is no reference to the fact that other European countries tend to regulate their training systems through a “social partnership” approach involving a close collaboration between government, employers and trade unions.

This social partnership operates at different levels, including playing a key role in agreeing national skills strategies and the overall regulation of the apprenticeship/technical education systems to ensure that high quality standards prevail. The clear lesson is that the UK government needs to give trade unions a central role in setting and monitoring quality standards in the evolving apprenticeship/technical education system in England as is common practice in many other European countries with high quality training systems.

The second challenge we highlighted in our submission to the Bill Committee was the need for necessary funding levels to be committed to delivering a high quality technical education system. The Sainsbury Panel report emphasised this point, saying that “a reason why our system of technical education has not been of high quality or respected in the past is that it has not been properly funded” (foreword by Lord Sainsbury). The Green Paper has announced additional funding of £170 million for capital funding to establish new Institutes of Technology and this is a welcome start, albeit there needs to be much greater clarification about how these new institutes will operate alongside FE colleges.

However, the analysis by the Sainsbury Panel highlighted that the funding challenge is about more than just committing additional funding to buildings and new institutions. For example, its report showed that the current funding regime for technical education for 16-19 year olds in England pays for, on average, 20 hours per week compared to 28 hours in Norway and “this limits programme size, teacher contact time, tailored support and advice, enrichment and the take-up of higher cost subjects” (p69).

The government’s response on this point in the Post-16 Skills Plan raises a number of concerns as it simply stated: “We accept and will implement all of the Sainsbury panel’s proposals, unequivocally where that is possible within current budget constraints”. The TUC does not believe that this is an adequate response to the challenge set out by Lord Sainsbury and that there urgently needs to be a new funding strategy for the FE sector that addresses the need for additional funding for the new technical education system.

There is also a need to address the large cuts to the sector since 2010 – according to a recent analysis by the House of Commons Library “over the last five years the FE sector has experienced a prolonged period of funding cuts”. Whilst there has been some degree of respite by the government’s commitment to hold the FE and Adult Skills Budget constant in cash terms for the rest of this Parliament, this is much too little too late.

In addition to the central plank of technical education reform, the Green Paper contains welcome proposals to increase the number of STEM graduates, including addressing gender and regional divides. It also returns to the thorny issue of tackling the evident deficit in our careers guidance services by promising (yet another) review to tackle what it admits to be a “patchy and inconsistent [service] – both in schools and in later life.”

There are welcome proposals in the Green Paper to testing out new approaches to revitalising lifelong learning opportunities for adults, including developing direct outreach services and looking at the potential “role of community learning centres as part of this approach”. The government should draw on the expertise of unions on this front, including the widely acknowledged expertise of union learning reps in engaging adult learners lacking confidence and helping them re-engaging in learning in union-led workplace learning centres.

The government will be making major savings to its skills budget over the coming years as apprenticeship funding (approximately £1.5bn a year) is wholly replaced by revenue from levy-paying employers. The TUC believes that there is a strong case for using these savings to boost opportunities for adults to retrain, especially people on a low income who are averse to taking out a FE student tuition loan which are now mandatory for an increasing number of college courses available to adults.