Andy Westwood, Vice Dean Social Responsibility, Faculty of Humanities, University of Manchester

An election promise

During the General Election, the Conservatives announced plans for a “national skills fund” worth £3 billion over the course of the next parliament.

Accompanying documents showed that it would breakdown at roughly £600 million a year but also insisting that this is “new funding on top of existing skills funding”. It expects this would be for a range of courses, including apprenticeships. The Conservative Party also revealed that the fund would represent ’the first steps towards a Right to Retrain’.

It was quite a week for adult skills with all three main parties in England choosing to headline their campaigns with adult skills pledges.

The Lib Dems gave us a ’Skills Wallet’ with a few thousand pounds worth of vouchers inside.

Labour offered a series of entitlements at L3 and above including up to six years free higher education.

Both followed up the recommendations of independent commissions looking at the need to improve opportunities for part time learning and adult skills in our workforce.

There are then - unsurprisingly - some good ideas in both, and ministers and civil servants may want to flick through them when deciding how to spend their £3 billion.

A budget promise

Without any such commissions, the Conservative manifesto was rather sketchier on details but that was the nature of the election and their need to adopt a more cautious approach to messaging, policy detail and to spending. But now the poetry of the campaign must move to the prose of government and following Brexit, a ministerial reshuffle (now we have an actual skills minister – Gillian Keegan - to lead this work) so we can look for more detail on how such a fund might work.

Sajid Javid before his resignation as Chancellor had promised that the Budget on 11th March would focus on skills, so we can assume at least that his successor Rishi Sunak will at least have some of the resources in place.

Spending the £3bn

And so, what should we spend £3 billion on? Stretched out over five years, it’s not a lot of money - compared to £9 billion extra on R&D and up to £100 billion on infrastructure - so choices will have to be made.

There are strong arguments for using the money to shore up a crumbling FE estate and system but there are already promises on capital funding and extra core funding that means this should be spent on other priorities.

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The promise that it represents ‘steps towards a right to retrain’ is intriguing.

Rights and entitlements sound more like the Labour manifesto and so if that is the direction they wish to take the costings and entitlements for adults are certainly worth revisiting. Unlike the rest of the manifesto, there is some thought and detail about what should be done and how much it might cost over time. There is also some assessment of likely demand too.

So that’s one idea - and one that might suggest that more resource will have to follow if this is going to be any kind of entitlement or right in the future. It also means - explicitly - that this is the end of any kind of ELQ caveat (Equivalent or Lower Qualification) - retraining is retraining.

Levelling-Up

But it seems that like infrastructure and R&D, the National Skills Fund will also have to explicitly target some of the government’s bigger political narratives. The obvious one is ‘levelling up’ economic performance across regions and left behind places.

In these areas, the FE colleges and universities - and the hybrid mixed economy institutions in places like Blackpool, Grimsby and Southend - have by and large been those that have suffered more falling numbers, cuts to overall budgets and financial challenges than others.

They have been at the wrong end of the various markets in HE, FE and apprenticeships, and all too often in the sights of inspectors, frameworks and metrics that have assessed value for money or performance without understanding very much at all about place or local economies. The changes in political geography may change all of that of course.

Top Three Recommendations:

1: Higher Funding for a ‘Right to Retraining’

A right to retrain is a good idea and the new Conservative Government should find the money to make it real. £3 billion over five years is nowhere near enough and so they will need a higher level of spending and a long-term plan.

2: Devolve Some of the National Skills Fund Locally

There is no doubt the new Government is thinking about ‘place’ and levelling up very seriously. It should devolve some of the National Skills Fund straightway and prioritise left behind places especially the areas that most need stronger institutions and better provision.

3: Planning Skills, Infrastructure and R&D Together

For once, skills spending should be planned and prioritised alongside other investment supporting national and regional productivity such as infrastructure and R&D. If that’s done, then together the sum will be much more than each of its parts.

Andy Westwood, Vice Dean Social Responsibility, Faculty of Humanities, University of Manchester

   

Making a Success of the National Skills Fund

As we enter the 2020s, adults and employers are confronted with unprecedented economic and labour market change, in this context NCFE and Campaign for Learning asked twelve authors to set out their initial thoughts on the National Skills Fund, and the journey towards a ‘right to retraining’. 

These leading thinkers recommend policies for the reform of adult education to support a changing economy in this collection of articles.

Exploring the proposed National Skills Fund and an individual’s right to retraining in more detail, these articles highlight some of the major challenges the policy faces, alongside issues which are set to further impact the economy.

The authors are:

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