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Skills for Sustainable Growth – are we really asking the right questions?

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The consultation paper on ‘Skills for Sustainable Growth’ asks some thirty questions to which the government (or more precisely BIS) would like a response. Unfortunately in my view they are neither the right questions, nor questions that would lead to the fundamental review of post school education and training that is needed if the UK is to address its decline in international league tables.

So what’s wrong with how we are approaching the problem? The first most obvious point relates to confusion about what is and is not important, who pays and the lack of clarity with regard to the relationship between skills, qualifications, training and education and what the government is trying to achieve.

Let’s start with the relationship between skills and productivity. Yes there is some evidence that skills make a difference – No there is little or no evidence that they are as important as the application of new technologies, or the ready availability of funds for capital investment. Moreover, if we accept that they do positively influence the bottom line, then there is absolutely no a priori reason why employers should not pay the full economic cost of their acquisition themselves. They’d be mad not to. And as for the dangers that skilled employees may be poached a) ’twas ever thus and b) this can be dealt with contractually with pay back clauses for those in whom there has been a significant investment and who leave the company. If that’s not enough of an incentive and the government want to do something really radical to encourage employers to invest in skills, then they could always bring back the training levy!

Secondly where are the educational and training institutions in all of this? There’s plenty of mention of colleges and higher level skills but what of the responsibilities of our universities? Are there not employers complaining that after three years or sometimes more of university study many graduates lack basic skills and are virtually unemployable? The real question to be answered is when are we going to have an integrated look at the education and training needs of individuals over a lifetime and design our institutions and other means of provision accordingly? Until we do we will continue to have a heavily front loaded and largely ineffective system that gives relatively little opportunities to those over the age of 25 to take part time bite size chunks of learning that give them the just-in-time skills that they need, whether in work or out of it!

And thirdly what about the individual? The paper supports the idea of individual learning accounts but to have a real impact they should be of such value that they can be used against college or university education as well as short vocational or leisure provision. They should also be inflation linked to maintain their value over time or topped up each year as the country becomes more prosperous. Is the government brave enough to go the whole hog and let the market decide where funds should go? Alternatively, why can’t investment in personal skills be settable against tax – to a maximum amount per year or perhaps even over a lifetime?

So we are talking about skills and learning that benefit the individual and the employer, whether or not they lead to qualifications that are largely delivered part-time, just in time and available over a lifetime. This would be encouraged by training levies for employers and individual learning accounts and/or tax breaks for individuals. With a free for all for institutions to compete in the market place, without further state subsidy, for the available funds to be spent on accredited provision. Now wouldn’t that be the basis for an interesting consultation document?

James Ebury is a former college principal

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