At the end of 2009, the Government set out its stall in the Skills for Growth White Paper. It proposed a new target: for three-quarters of people to have participated in higher education or completed an advanced apprenticeship or equivalent vocational qualification by the age of 30. There will be funding for 35,000 more advanced/higher level apprenticeships over the next two years and scholarships to university for apprentices.
The White Paper aimed for a more strategic approach on skills especially in priority sectors such as advanced manufacturing and working towards a low carbon economy. It announced a new Joint Investment Scheme for the sector, with employers expected to provide half of a £100m fund to support 75,000 additional training places.
The Conservative Party has said it will also be expanding apprentice numbers, by diverting Train to gain cash. It will establish 12 new technical colleges in the major conurbations for young people from the age of 14, with a focus on vocational qualifications. It will create a “slim” Further Education Funding Council for England and Sector Skills Councils to administer funding and accredit courses. Many skills organisations will be thrown on to the Tories’ bonfire of the quango.
The good news for unionlearn is that David Willetts, the shadow minister for universities and skills, has said that he strongly supports the work that we are doing in the workplace to improve skills and learning and the partnerships we are forging with employers to put training high on the agenda.
But as the opinion polls fluctuate and the political pundits speculate, it is the economy that will dominate. Alistair Darling’s pre-budget report did little to comfort either the business community or trade unions. While his tax on bankers’ bonuses made a valid point, it soon became clear that those in the line of fire will be civil servants and public sector workers who face job losses, wage freezes and pension squeezes.
There was some unexpected good news, including an extra £200m funding this year for 16 to 19 year olds; but adult skills face cuts of £340m by 2013. Following the announcement of £600m cuts in higher education, science and research budgets the University and College Union predicted that more than 6,000 jobs could be at risk in further and higher education and hundreds of courses could be cut. And, the news of the closure of Corus’s plant in Redcar, putting 1,700 steelworkers out of a job, signals tough times ahead in industry.
This is why unionlearn has launched a Recession and Recovery programme. This project, working throughout the regions, is training learning and trade union reps in examples of best practise in avoiding redundancy. Where redundancies occur or are about to happen, the project works with employees to improve their learning and skills, help them find new employment and prepare them for new jobs as the economy begins to recover from recession.
unionlearn is working with the Regional Development Agencies, the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils (ASSC), Jobcentre Plus, the Learning and Skills Council (and its reincarnations) and other key players concerned with employment and skills, including Acas and Business Link.
So whether it is March or May when the electorate makes its decision, there is plenty to play for in the months to come.
Tom Wilson is director of unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and skills organisation
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