As the schools finish for the long six-week break and everyone starts to head off to the seaside or sunnier climes, it’s that time of year again for a bit of reflection.
At unionlearn we have just held our annual conference. Coming at the end of July it provided an excellent opportunity to review the last year and indeed the last few months, in which there have been dramatic changes politically. It also gave us a chance to start looking ahead to the next year.
The conference was addressed by two Government ministers; both Vince Cable and John Hayes attended in what was one of our busiest conferences ever. The high turnout shows how much interest there is in both the skills agenda and hearing what the government is planning for the future of learning and skills.
Both ministers again expressed their strong support for unionlearn. They support the workplace learning agenda but also gave strong personal support for the continuing development of adult and community learning. This is a theme that has been taken up by both Cable and Hayes since being appointed in a number of public speeches. The key, of course, to what shape that takes will depend on several factors, not least the outcome of the comprehensive spending review in the autumn and I’m afraid we didn’t receive any sneak previews.
Another factor is going to be the consultation BIS have begun on future skills ‘Skills for Sustainable Growth’. With ten million workers, one in three of all working people, receiving no training at all last year the Government has an essential role in levering in more training and encouraging employers to create a culture of learning. This government know that skills are key to future economic growth and sustaining businesses. At our conference asked Vince Cable about the new right to request time off for training and although he replied that it is now under review, as part of the coalition look at alleged burdens on business, we will be arguing strongly that it should stay.
We’ve also seen the release of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills report on skills ‘Ambition 2020’ which calls for an overhaul of the way we deliver skills. It is a clarion call to improve skills to ensure the UK achieves its ambition of being in the top eight countries for skills, jobs and productivity by 2020. It also calls for a further big increase in the number of apprenticeships, something we would strongly support. It is not just graduates but skills at all levels which are vital. The report rightly adds that students of all kinds need better information about the range of courses and qualifications on offer.
It’s a challenging report which will give Government, employers and providers much to think about. Nobody disputes the economic imperative for a better skilled workforce. But if government (wrongly) is cutting skills spending then employers will have to pay more. Modern research facilities, apprenticeship schemes and good training require investment, not just good will and commitment.
We will return from the summer break ready to hit the party conference season as well as the new parliamentary and academic years. It is going to be an interesting and important time for the skills sector. We’ll all be looking to see where the cuts fall, and what funding remains available for skills and learning. How will Government encourage employers to make up the shortfall? Asking employees to pay at a time of pay cuts and rising unemployment is neither right nor practicable. So far, this is the first recession in which training has not slumped. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Tom Wilson is director of unionlearn, the TUC's learning and training organisation
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