We’re less than three weeks away from a General Election that will shape our country for years to come.
How do the main party’s election pledges stack up?
The polls suggest that the only debate is how big Mrs May’s majority will be, potentially giving her the power to shape the next decade or more. Of course, the polls have been wrong before. So how do the two main parties stack up on learning and skills?
Theresa May’s stated reason for calling the election was to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations. In practice, her manifesto sets out a broader philosophy about building a fair and prosperous country in the long-term: in other words, it's more about how to respond to Brexit than what Brexit looks like.
Meantime, Labour’s manifesto has more policies than most in recent times. Like the Conservatives, it's pretty light on Brexit detail. But there's lots in there about the power of education and Labour’s vision for boosting it through life.
Both have, perhaps, a bigger focus on Further Education than previous years’ manifestos. For the Conservatives, this is in large part about securing our post-Brexit prosperity as well as tackling ‘burning injustices’. For Labour, it's also about a principle of free education through life – hence they promise a National Education Service. So, high marks to both for their commitment to learning and education, and not just mentioning schools and universities.
In how to achieve this vision, Labour’s manifesto includes some ‘greatest hits’ of their time in Government. They would abolish Advanced Learner Loans to extend free learning through life, reintroduce the Education Maintenance Allowance for young people, and (in contrast to their previous time in Government) abolish university tuition fees. I would question whether abolishing tuition fees (benefiting better-off graduates the most) should be a bigger priority than reversing cuts to in-work benefits or the benefit freeze (Labour pledge to only partly reverse them). But the section on Apprenticeships, focusing on quality and outcomes rather than ever increasing numbers of starts, could've been lifted from a Learning and Work Institute report!
By contrast, the Conservatives manifesto reads (unsurprisingly) like a ‘greatest hits’ of the last few years – it’s very much steady as she goes for reform of technical education and Apprenticeships (with the 3m by 2020 target staying, but nothing committed to beyond that). It misses the chance to, for example, help people take back control (to coin a phrase) of their learning by giving them a Personal Learning Account – in our view this could make more of a difference than a proposed National Retraining Programme that, on the face of it, sounds a little like Train to Gain... And, given the Prime Minister’s focus on this group since she took office, there's surprisingly little for the just about managing, those in low paid work. But it’s good to see commitments to quality and access – our watchwords when it comes to policy and delivery.
Neither party really addresses low demand for skills by employers nor how to promote learning throughout life. Learning and Work Institute set out ideas for this in our manifesto, including flexing up the Loans system, focusing on Apprenticeship quality more than quantity, and an advancement service for people in low paid work. If I were being charitable I'd say that I'm sure these more detailed plans will follow the election…
In terms of how to pay for all of this, Labour are both clearer and bolder. They have pledged to double the Adult Education Budget (AEB) to £3bn, and spend extra resources on their other pledges. It's good to see a commitment for increased resources rather than just willing the ends (of more skills) but not the means.
However, there's little on increasing individual and employment investment in and commitment to learning (there's a hint of ‘if we build it, they will come’ – though, to be fair, manifestos are not the place for every detail) and of course there are questions to be asked about whether there proposed reversal of corporation tax cuts since 2010 to pay for this are either sensible or will raise the amounts proposed.
It is tougher to critique the coatings in the Conservative manifesto, since there aren't any. We don't know what the AEB would be (I fear there's a risk it will be raided to pay for technical education reforms), for example.
But pleasingly both parties sign up to the pan-sector campaign Learning and Work Institute convened for a successor to European Social Fund! There's more to do to hold them to this and ensure the design of the successor [UK Shared Prosperity Fund] is more flexible and less bureaucratic so please do join more than 200 organisations and individuals and sign up here to show your support.
Overall, we should celebrate the fact Further Education is a big part of the election debate and manifesto plans.
We should also work together to make sure that attention stays, and is backed by investment and reform, after the election.
Stephen Evans, Chief Executive, Learning & Work Institute