Philip Hammond prepares to give his 2017 Budget. Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images.
#Budget2017: Boost for technical skills funding
As with much of the Budget, the package of skills measures contained few surprises as the various announcements had been trailed extensively beforehand.
Nevertheless, there is much to welcome in the Budget on technical education and skills, in particular the commitment to step up funding for the rollout of the new qualification system (or “T Levels” as they appear to have been named virtually overnight).
The planned overhaul of technical education is drawn from the recommendations of the Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education chaired by Lord Sainsbury, which the government endorsed in its response (Post-16 Skills Plan) albeit without making any definite promises on funding.
Both documents were published last summer and the TUC welcomed the broad thrust of the recommendations, saying that the prospect of Brexit heightened the need for a new high status technical skills system that would complement apprenticeships.
Despite numerous well-intentioned initiatives in recent decades, there is a broad consensus that technical education in the UK remains the poor relation of the academic route.
This is a drag on productivity and inhibits career progression for those who are not inclined to go to university for a range of valid reasons.
As the Chancellor bluntly pointed out in his speech, “while we have an academic route in this country that is undeniably one of the best in the world, the truth is that we languish near the bottom of the international league tables for technical education.”
The thrust of the recommendations of the Sainsbury Panel are aimed at putting in place a new system of technical education that is provided through 15 high-quality routes with standards being set by the Institute for Apprenticeships (which is to be renamed the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education).
We have provided more detail on our view of the proposed reform of technical education in our submission to the parliamentary committee overlooking the Technical and Further Education Bill, which is taking through some of the necessary legislative reforms.
In addition to welcoming the central thrust of the Sainsbury reforms, the TUC submission specifically welcomed the following features of the proposed technical education framework:
- Integration of the apprenticeships and technical education systems as is the case in many other countries
- Building in flexibility that enables students to switch between academic and technical education pathways to reflect changing preferences and circumstances
- Tailored support for disabled students and those with special educational needs taking up this educational option; and
- Enabling adults to access the new technical education system to retrain or upskill.
However, our submission also highlighted two potential hurdles that might see this initiative go the way of many others in the past.
First, as Lord Sainsbury himself emphasised in the foreword to his panel’s report, “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.”
It was of concern that the government’s response last summer was a bit shaky on this, with the following ambiguous commitment: “We accept and will implement all of the Sainsbury panel’s proposals, unequivocally where that is possible within current budget constraints”.
Today’s announcement in the Budget is a major step in overcoming this hurdle with a commitment to provide an “additional £500M of additional funding” per annum by the time all the qualifications within each of the 15 occupational routes are all available (expected from September 2022).
This additional funding will increase the number of hours on these new courses by more than 50% to over 900 hours a year and also allow for a high quality industry work placement, two criteria that the Sainsbury Panel recommended as being essential.
A second hurdle to achieving a durable technical education system is to ensure that employers and employees have a genuine sense of ownership of the system, which should in turn promote a high degree of political consensus about its long term stability.
Other European countries tend to regulate their training systems through a “social partnership” approach involving a close collaboration between government, employers and trade unions and this leads to longevity and high quality standards that meet the needs of employers and the workforce.
This is still an outstanding challenge for the nascent technical education system and the government’s ongoing apprenticeship reform programme.
For example, the TUC has recently expressed concerns that despite the significant role of trade unions in the design and provision of apprenticeships, no-one with a trade union background was appointed to the board of the Institute for Apprenticeships.
There were some additional skills announcements in the Budget of note, including that the government will be spending up to £40 million by 2018-19 “to test different approaches to help people retraining and upskill throughout their working lives”.
Suffice to say, there is much best practice unions can demonstrate on this front, especially through the innovative work of union learning reps in supporting adults to re-engage in learning and training through workplace initiatives.
The Chancellor also confirmed that from 2019-20 maintenance loans will be available to students taking technical education courses (level 4-6) at the new National Colleges and Institutes for Technology that are currently under development.
In addition, from 2018-19 part-time undergraduates will for the first time have access to maintenance loans and “doctoral student loans” of up to £25,000 will also become available then.