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The Covid-19 Inheritance: Building a Fairer and Greener Britain

Paul Nowak - TUC - photo credit Jess Hurd
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A Better Recovery

The TUC’s vision of a better recovery takes as its premise that the coronavirus pandemic and the measures taken to tackle it have exposed serious flaws in how the UK economy works. So what needs to change? The TUC report – A Better Recovery – stresses that we should start by urgently addressing the appalling level of inequality at the heart of our economy and labour market.

We need to tackle the legacy of the longest pay squeeze in centuries and the position of certain groups disproportionately stuck in insecure jobs on low pay, including Black and minority ethnic workers. And we need to turn around the damaging effects of austerity by investing in and rebuilding our public services and repairing our social security net so that everyone has enough to live on.

A National Recovery Council

Unions have played a key role in mitigating the worst impacts of the pandemic, including working closely with government on the rollout of the job retention scheme that saved millions of jobs and fighting for strong rules on safe workplaces. Now unions need to have a say in the recovery and that is why the TUC is calling for a National Recovery Council consisting of unions, government and businesses to create a greener and fairer economy. 

This must involve a National Plan to stimulate demand, achieve net zero carbon emissions and a just transition for workers across the economy. As part of this, we must rebuild our industrial capacity and tackle regional inequalities that reflect failed deindustrialisation, including through a recovery programme that delivers thousands of new jobs and reduces carbon emissions. And the National Recovery Council must have a remit for skills so workers are trained for the new jobs created.

According to a recent OECD report the UK lacks the national social partnership arrangements that underpin high-quality skill systems in many other countries. To achieve these two objectives we need a skills system that is fit for purpose and has the buy-in of employers, unions and other key stakeholders. 

Immediate Action, Long-Term Reform 

The immediate priority for policy makers must be to boost jobs and skills now to combat the fallout from Covid-19. However, we must simultaneously plan for how we rebuild our economy and society over the longer-term, including by putting quality jobs and skills at the heart of this vision. If we can get that right, in tandem with longerterm skills reforms, there is the potential to drive forward a better economic recovery and build a fairer and greener Britain. 

Building on the Review of Post-18 Education

The review led by Philip Augar has retained a high profile since it reported over a year ago and there has continued to be warm words from government about its “thoughtful recommendations”. There is much talk of an impending FE and skills white paper that will bring about significant reforms, drawing on the review’s recommendations. However, Covid-19 has transformed the urgency and scale of government action required on a number of fronts – including skills – to combat the economic storm facing us.  

While we find ourselves in a very different world to the one when the Augar Review reported, many of the challenges facing us back then remain relevant. Massive under-investment in workforce skills has left us with a legacy of poor productivity and entrenched barriers for those wanting to improve their job prospects. Government spending on adult education and skills fell by 47% in the last decade, the volume of employer-led training is down by a staggering 60% since the end of the 1990s, and employer investment in adult training per employee in the UK is half the EU average.

The post-school options for too many of our young people are limited in comparison to many other nations that support high-quality technical education and apprenticeship systems. Almost 40% of our 25-year-olds do not progress beyond a level 2 qualification (i.e. GCSE or vocational equivalent) and very few pursue and achieve higher level technical qualifications (4% compared to 20% in Germany).

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Issues for Post-16 Policy Makers

Combatting the economic fallout of the pandemic

The TUC is calling on the government to prioritise the following measures: 

  • A job guarantee at a real living wage or the union negotiated rate for the job for those who have faced a period of unemployment, targeted initially on young people. The training element of this programme should be flexible and include the option for kick-starting an apprenticeship. 
  • A new right to retrain for everybody, backed up by funding and personal lifelong learning accounts. This should involve bringing forward the £600m promised investment in a national skills fund, and accelerating the work of the national retraining partnership, to ensure there is a gateway to new skills for everyone.  
  • An ‘education and training guarantee’ for all school leavers and other young people aged 25 and under who wish to take this up. This guarantee would include an apprenticeship, a place at college or university, and other education and training options. In support of this the apprenticeship levy should be flexed to allow employers to use their funds to provide pre-apprenticeship training programmes where appropriate.

Structural reforms to the skills system

Many of the recommendations of the post-18 review also need to be taken forward if we are to sustain a viable economic recovery, including:

  • Providing a fully funded entitlement for all adults to achieve a Level 3 qualification level and boosting take-up of courses leading to higher level technical qualifications. 
  • Increasing financial support for adult FE and HE students through maintenance grants and bursaries.
  • Making investment in the FE estate and workforce a priority. 
  • Reforming poor-quality and low paid apprenticeships and widening access for underrepresented groups to the best apprenticeships.

In addition, the TUC is calling for measures to strengthen enforcement of employment and training rights of apprentices, boost wage levels, improve equality of access, and guarantee a minimum progression to a level 3 apprenticeship for all our young people.

Paul Nowak, TUC

Revolutionary Forces

In the immediate aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is easy to forget that there were wider revolutionary forces at work on the UK’s economy before the virus outbreak.

With issues such as Brexit, the rise of automation in the workplace, longer working lives, and poor UK productivity brought into even sharper focus, education and skills organisations, NCFE and Campaign for Learning (CfL), jointly commissioned the ‘Revolutionary Forces’ discussion paper.

Published on 6 July 2020, the collection of articles, penned by experts from the FE sector, as well as labour market economics, employment and mental health, urges Government to ensure that the plans outlined in the forthcoming post-16 white paper are sufficiently flexible to meet the immense changes faced by the UK economy throughout the 2020s. The authors explore some of the key challenges facing the nation throughout the 2020s which the DfE needs to take into consideration when writing their recommendations:

The authors are:

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