The publication at the end of October of the latest UKCES report ‘Towards Ambition 2020: skills, jobs, growth’ was the latest of several recent indicators that learner accounts have been rehabilitated. It followed a more cautious endorsement in ‘Learning for Life’ – the report of the NIACE Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning. Hot on the heels of the UKCES report was another report by Mark Corney for the CfBT Education Trust entitled ‘Funding Upskilling and Reskilling in the 21st Century – From Personal Pension Accounts to Person Skill Accounts’.
Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs) were introduced by the Labour Government in the autumn of 2000. The objective behind them was to provide adult learners with the means and motivation to engage with the education system, to increase learner choice and to bring new providers into the marketplace. They were not intended to be a guarantee of the quality of a course, and therefore suffered from a lack of quality assurance. This enabled unscrupulous providers, or people posing as providers, to enter the market and exploit a poorly designed system. As evidence of widespread fraud came to light ILAs were hastily suspended in October 2001.
But just because that system failed did not mean that learner accounts were a bad idea. If there had been a requirement that the funds made available could only be used for accredited courses at approved institutions ILAs would still be with us today, and it is a near certainty that there would have been hundreds of thousands more people who had engaged with some sort of worthwhile learning.
However, once bitten, twice shy. Neither politicians nor civil servants wanted to be associated with a tainted policy, so several years have passed before the notion of Learner Accounts has been seriously considered again.
I think City & Guilds can claim some credit for getting them back on the agenda. Eighteen months ago we published the first version of our ‘Manifesto for Skills’ in which we called for the establishment of a National Learning Bank that would enable learning accounts to be administered. The timing was a touch unfortunate as it coincided with the near meltdown of the banking system in the UK, and the consequent massive increase in debt that was largely caused by the rescue that was put in place. It soon became clear that we would need to recommend the gradual introduction of a national learner accounts system, which we called ‘Skill Accounts Plus’.
Over time we spoke to a very large number of MPs (including ministers and opposition spokespeople) and their advisers, some members of the House of Lords, some researchers, and some opinion formers within the sector. Gradually our ideas took hold and they have culminated in what is now significant cross-party enthusiasm for some of what we recommended, albeit tinged with some very real doubts about whether such a radical shake-up is affordable right now.
We need Skills Account Plus so that individuals can better engage in learning, but options must be personalised to suit personal needs and circumstances. The only way to build a truly personalised system of learning is to place funding and control of choices firmly in the hands of individuals and to equip them to make the choices that are right for them, within a framework established by government. Only then can we move towards a demand-led system of skills funding, where providers have to respond to the needs of individuals rather than vice-versa.
That having been said, there would have to be some assurance for colleges and other bodies on the supply side that they can invest with confidence in developing learning programmes and associated resources that are to industry standard. Equally it would be necessary to protect some provision for strategic reasons and not rely solely on the market and consumer choice.
Hand in hand with greater control goes greater responsibility. We need to encourage individuals and employers to see learning as an investment in the future – just as people save for retirement or aspire to own their own home. To help achieve this aim, a tripartite system of funding where individuals, employers and the government all make a contribution must be developed. This will create, for all stakeholders, a culture of responsibility for learning and ensure that all three groups will work towards a mutually beneficial outcome.
To bring this about it will be necessary to devise some incentives for both individuals and employers. The accounts could be pump-primed using the money that is currently used for Child Trust Funds – money that is currently made available to young people when they reach their 18th birthdays with no strings attached. It is no longer tenable that this should happen – the money should be earmarked for personal development and learning. Individuals could also be incentivised by allowing interest to accrue to certain levels in their accounts without attracting tax. Employers could be similarly incentivised by enabling credits to be claimed against Corporation Tax for all money that was used to match individuals’ contributions to their learner accounts. Any money left unspent at the end of a working life could be transferred to individuals’ personal pension pots.
To give individuals the maximum control over their learning choices, the system of Skills Accounts Plus should ultimately be extended to cover all post-compulsory education, including higher education. This would end the unfairness whereby those choosing to go on vocational courses are not given the same opportunities and access to financial support as those doing more traditional academic courses.
Choices could be made from accredited providers, ensuring that these meet government priorities – although other courses could also be made available through the system on a case-by-case basis. Employers would naturally guide the options available and, when coupled with a comprehensive information, advice and guidance system, individuals would be able to choose learning options that would benefit both their careers and them personally. Without the ability for individuals to enjoy learning, there will always be a ‘learning deficit’ in the UK.
It has to be said that not everyone now advocating learner accounts would sign up to the prescription I have outlined above. But it is nevertheless exciting and encouraging that so many people are now prepared to give reformed ILAs a chance.
Andrew Sich is head of corporate affairs at City & Guilds, which helps two million learners work towards one of its qualifications every year