From education to employment

Both Conservatives and Labour fail to answer the productivity challenge – but FE has to step up as well

Tom Bewick is the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies and the presenter of the Skills World Live Radio Show

Skills World Live hit the road recently, recording engaging podcasts at both major political party conferences. The programme’s presenter and FAB chief executive, Tom Bewick, provides a personal reflection on what he feels both parties and FE needs to address if they want things to be better in future. 

The Conservative councillor John Cope started one of our recordings in Birmingham with: “I’d struggle to know what to say on the doorstep when it comes to the party’s offer on education”, he said. 

In another broadcast, the shadow minister, Toby Perkins MP, said he hoped to be the actual skills minister in a future Labour government. But that he couldn’t guarantee whether there would be more investment in FE if the party wins the next general election. 

Meanwhile, the current skills minister, Andrea Jenkyns MP, told a Thatcherite fringe group – the Bruges group to be precise – that today’s educators are more interested in “Harry Potter studies” than training the next generation of construction apprentices. 

One of the aims of the Bruges group is to massively reduce the size of the state

Privatisation of public services is certainly not a dirty word among this crowd. People who attend these events are the kind of low tax Tories who would portray the chancellor’s screeching U-turn on the 45 pence tax rate for high-earners, as a complete capitulation to socialism. 

How ironic then that in the speech, Jenkyns rattled off a string of Big State initiatives that her department was leading on. They included state owned T levels; state funded boot-camps; a new freedom of speech czar – paid for by the taxpayer – to tackle campus cancel culture. No irony lost here.

Was the Bruges group even aware that the Education Skills Funding Agency – the public body Jenkyns now sponsors – is the biggest quango in Europe?

The list of top-down Whitehall driven enterprises became so exhaustive at one point that the Tory mayor for the West Midlands, Andy Street, had to threaten a complaint to the chief whip. He chided the minister for even daring to suggest that devolution of the adult skills budget would go no further on her watch. 

The depressing truth is that both Conservative and Labour – currently at any rate – have no real answers for the stagnating wages, high-inflation and Britain’s yawning productivity gap. 

They are tinkering at the edges while Rome burns

Perhaps unsurprisingly, because of much bigger macroeconomic events – including a £2 trillion national debt –  party spin doctors are nervous about promising additional cash handouts to the post-18 sector. What about the nurses, police, fire-fighters and so on…

And while this may seem like an England only bun fight, the so-called Barnett consequential formulas will mean that in places like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, they will automatically benefit from any future public investment uplift for FE in England. 

To think, public spending per head, in these parts of the United Kingdom, is already about 20 per higher than in England. 

So much for levelling-up. A slogan that has disappeared down the plug hole, almost as fast as Larry the Cat, chasing a fox out of Downing Street recently. 

The sheer ineptitude has resulted in misery for the bright sparks at the Treasury who are tasked with controlling public expenditure. 

FE sector leaders – as much as I am at pains to say it – should abandon any attempt to simply call for more government money

For at least the next decade that is not going to happen. Not because politicians are shy about how much they love FE colleges, including all the tweets offering their support (just as they did during the last comprehensive spending review round). Because when push comes to shove, FE is really not that important to them. 

I’ve worked on many MP’s election campaigns over the past 30 years. I’ve stood for Parliament (unsuccessfully). Not once has the plight of FE ever been raised on the doorstep with me. Colleges and private training providers are invisible from an electoral point of view.  

The paradox is that if policymakers had focused less on a zero sum game and grew the economy through better productivity (output per hour worked), then the total public service investment would be able to increase, because the economic pie would automatically get bigger. 

Since 2008, in the UK, we’ve been arguing about sharing out a fixed size of the pie which has then to feed more people. A country about the size of Sweden has moved here since 2003. Yet, the corollary of this move is that it didn’t bring with it the quality of Swedish public services and infrastructure developments. 

Inevitably, if the economic growth pie grows by less than 1 per cent per annum over the period, as it has done, the slices being handed out get thinner and thinner. 

In other words, growing national income via migration and population growth is not the same as economic growth driven by better skill and increased productivity. 

A crash course in 101 economics goes something like this: 

  • Produce more goods and services as a nation, but in less time than it takes your competitors to produce the same. 
  • Generate higher surplus value as a result (export more!). 
  • Bosses then pay more. 
  • Magic, the tax take goes up!

Cogito, ergo sum: more proceeds of growth to splurge on public services. 

A cruel irony is that the £1 billion shortfall in investment in further education since 2010 could have been completely avoided if policymakers had spent the last decade focused on improving our skills and productivity performance. 

Instead, the Department for Education has focussed on empire building. Headcount doubled from under 10,000 civil servants in 2015 to nearly 20,000 today according to the professional network site, LinkedIn. 

In the private sector, firms have slashed training investment in workers by 23 per cent since 2005, according to the Labour Force Survey (LFS). Where has the coherent strategy been to reverse this decline? 

Interestingly, the conservative commentator, Emily Carver, did not deploy this basic economic argument in her contribution to the podcast she appeared on. Instead, she talked about how “opening the borders” was bad for “social cohesion”, particularly where the government was “not building the 1 million houses per year” to keep up with all the unplanned population growth.

It’s been obvious for years that UK productivity growth was falling behind our major competitors. Ministers who bang on about our GDP-to-debt ratio being the second lowest in the G7, then forget to mention that so is UK productivity. 

In the overall scheme of things that £1 billion shortfall for FE since 2010 – even if borrowed from the money markets – was not that great an ask at all. If anything, we should have been doubling investment in non-higher education, skills and adult education over the period. 

But in the end, it fell on deaf ears

The sector itself, FE leaders – myself included – have to take some responsibility for what has transpired. Collectively, we have failed.

Love bombing, it turns out, was not enough. Trading greater skills investment for less FE autonomy has not worked either. Particularly when the central government department responsible for policy bags the gains for its own set of top-down orchestrated skills products. 

Petitions and demonstrations have their uses, but battles like this are not won by keyboard warriors. 

Success is prosecuted by smart leaders and committed followers. Napoleon was the first modern leader to recognise this basic fact. 

The whole skills ecosystem needs to work more together. Qualifications and quality learner assessments are at the heart of that ecosystem. The decade of dissing qualifications needs to come to an end. As do some of the grand designs of state-backed awarding processes. 

If FE wants to get better results in future – both investment and outcomes – then it is going to have to completely change the script. It will have to demonstrate how it can solve the country’s productivity puzzle. 

With what little independence it has left, that means doing more of the running on policy design and implementation. This is the path to a higher-trust model of FE delivery in future. 

Sir Philip Augar, the author of the most important report on tertiary education since the Robbins Committee published in October 1963, made an interesting observation earlier this year. He mused about the success of the higher education community in shaping policies ministers were prepared to back, often in the face of public adversity. The FE community, he said, had not risen to the same challenge by comparison. 

In short, FE is very good at complaining about policy. In part, because it struggles to find the hard evidence of what really works. It has no productivity enhancing metrics that it campaigns on. No coherent vision that can really inspire. Interventions are ad-hoc and tactical. 

To be fair, chronic underfunding combined with some sensational sector journalism about inefficiency and waste over the past decade, has sapped the entrepreneurialism from many FE leaders. Sensible risk-taking has turned into abject risk aversion. When I speak with senior government officials and college leaders in private, that is what many of them tell me. 

The sector lacks the courage to face down the bureaucracy. And it has put institutional delivery models, market protectionism and inertia at the expense of real innovation and societal change.  

If we want FE to be a better place in future, then it is not only the politicians who will need to think and act differently. 

As Mahatma Gandhi once said, you make a start by being the change you want to see.

Tom Bewick
By Tom Bewick, the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies and the presenter of the Skills World Live Radio Show, broadcast by FE News.

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