James Robson holds up a trio of pledges that a Labour government might consider in any bid to align education with the skills needed for UK prosperity.

Sooner or later an election is coming in the UK and there will almost certainly be attempts to distract the electorate by shifting the focus of debates on to issues of immigration, small boats, and culture wars. However, all that’s really going to matter is the economy.

There’s a real danger that Labour will frame the policy debates around the economy too narrowly in their desire to portray the party as having a safe pair of fiscal hands. This “Ming vase” strategy, of stepping lightly and trying to avoid damage, has already been on display in Labour’s controversial roll back on the £28bn green spending pledge. While, understandably, Labour does not want to do anything to jeopardise getting into power, economic policymaking driven by a fear of disrupting the status quo, is limiting. It prevents systems thinking and cross-boundary strategy at the point of intersection between the economy and wider policy areas.

Education and Training (E&T), particularly post-16 E&T (higher and further education), is a perfect example of a policy area that intersects with the economy, where thinking about economic policy in broader terms is critical. An effective post-16 E&T sector is essential for the nation to deal with economic and labour market instability, technological developments, and, most importantly, to transition into a greener economy. Skills are critical to prosperity for people and the planet.

Post-16 E&T is stretched, underfunded, poorly regulated, and has been destabilised by a decade of policy churn.

However, post-16 E&T is stretched, underfunded, poorly regulated, and has been destabilised by a decade of policy churn. It has been beaten down by a neoliberal obsession with using market logic to coordinate the sector, putting institutions in damaging competition for much needed resources. Urgent policy attention is needed to develop a long-term strategy for E&T in a way that maximises economic benefit. Therefore, in the run-up to the election, our skills and E&T systems should be at the heart of economic policy discussions.

However, thus far, apart from a report by David Blunkett in 2022 and vague proposals to create a new body (Skills England), Labour has been largely silent on E&T and there’s little indication that skills policy will feature in a significant way in its manifesto. This is a major political failure. Labour has a real opportunity to distinguish itself from the Tories by radically rethinking E&T policy in a way that ensures it aligns more closely with urgent social and economic needs. It has the opportunity to create a new relationship between E&T and the economy that moves away from the outdated and now fatally flawed assumptions of human capital theory and puts a broader conceptualisation of prosperity for people and the planet at its core.

So, what would this look like? Our E&T and skills systems could be transformed into something that has real, long-term resilience and drives prosperity were Labour to adopt the three key mission pledges in their manifesto:

  • abandon market logic and think in systems;
  • focus on skills for long-term economic transformation; and
  • reduce policy churn through cross-party consensus.

Abandon market logic

The neoliberal obsession with, not just a market economy, but also a market society, has been baked into E&T. But managing the sector through market logic has failed. For more than a decade, post-16 E&T in England has been coordinated as a quasi-market with the state simply acting as market regulator rather than providing meaningful strategic oversight.

Competition has driven a wedge between academic and vocational pathways, underfunded the vocational sector, and led to poor staff morale and retention in further education.

Student choice has been viewed as driving quality of provision and ensuring skills alignment. This has put further and higher Education, universities and colleges in competition for students and resources. In a society shaped by middle-class aspirations, higher education is viewed as the gold standard. Competition has driven a wedge between academic and vocational pathways, underfunded the vocational sector, and led to poor staff morale and retention in further education. This has turned post-16 E&T into a hierarchy, rather than a set of diverse pathways designed to meet the different needs of the population and the economy. Importantly, competition has led to a sector that is actually poorly equipped to meet labour market demands. This is clearly illustrated by the latest figures from the Department for Education. They show that nearly a third of UK job vacancies relate to skills shortages (up from 22% in 2017), indicating significant misalignment between skills supply and demand.

It doesn’t need to be this way. The most successful international E&T approaches are rooted in systems thinking and managed cooperation between sectors and institutions rather than market logic and competition. There is an increasing international trend towards this mode of coordination in E&T. Australia’s recent move to create a joined up tertiary sector is part of this.

There is a real opportunity for a Labour government to learn from best international practice and commit to a systems-based approach to managing skills formation. A joined-up tertiary system, built on developing complementary pathways across academic and vocational sectors is fundamental to individual flourishing and national prosperity.

Focus on skills for transformation

The current policy approach that places employers at the heart of the sector has failed. The assumption is that employers should determine skills needs and E&T should respond. This is the basic idea of skills demand and supply. Employers say jump; E&T asks how high. However, the increasing fixation with meeting employer demands has reduced the role of employers in E&T to one of a simple customer, coming up with lists of the skills they want and refusing to take any responsibility for, or a real role in, the process of skills formation. This is despite the fact that the majority of skills demanded by employers are better formed in a workplace than a classroom.

Employers are often extremely poor at predicting their future skills needs.

At the same time, employers are often extremely poor at predicting their future skills needs. Most work with a two-year human resourcing plan and are usually more worried about immediate skills gaps and shortages than medium- or long-term staffing needs. This bakes short termism into E&T from the beginning.

The challenge for a Labour government will be that the climate crisis, as well as broader technological and geopolitical developments, require significant economic transformation. Across all sectors, practices must change; occupations must change; and skills must change. From farmers who must shift to more sustainable approaches in land management and agri-ecology, to businesses that need to engage with using hydrogen, carbon capture, and adopt greener approaches to data management, a profound change in the nature of work must happen. This means the short-term needs of employers, particularly when driven by shareholder profit, will almost certainly be in tension with a long-term vision for a green economy.

A reckoning is coming. However, there is a real opportunity for a government to drive the necessary economic transformation by rethinking the relationship between E&T and employers and subverting the assumption that skills supply and demand should be a simple linear process. By taking an active and coordinated approach to E&T, rather than leaving it to the short-term whims of employers positioned outside the system, a Labour government could set up structures and courses that meet the long-term economic needs of society and the planet. Again, modelling best European practice, employers could be positioned as partners who are increasing demand for green skills by being actively engaged in the training process and changing organisational practice through their involvement in E&T.

Ultimately, a brave and ambitious vision for E&T, built on the need for long-term skills and meaningful employer engagement, would underpin the process of economic transformation needed to achieve net zero carbon emissions.

Reduce policy churn

Thinking in the long term is critical, but we suffer from a policy hyperactivity disorder that has subjected E&T to near constant policy churn for the past two decades. The proposed introduction of yet another set of post-16 qualifications, the Advanced British Standard, before the newly created T levels have even been properly rolled out, is a perfect example.

Too many policy initiatives have been insubstantial, short-term, and initiative-led.

Too many policy initiatives have been insubstantial, short-term, and initiative-led. Rather than improving E&T, the main results have been destabilisation and complication. At the heart of a new mission for E&T should be a commitment to reduce policy churn and establish a period of stability. This requires creating a consensus, so that lasting, robust structures and policy approaches can be put in place. A key part of this must be a commitment to cross-party collaboration.

These three pledges could form the framework for a Labour government’s mission in E&T.  They could provide the foundation for an E&T system that can genuinely enhance prosperity in the nation and meet the challenges facing the economy and the planet.

James Robson

James is Director of Oxford University Centre for Skills, Knowledge, and Organisational Performance and Associate Professor of Tertiary Education Systems. His research is focused on the political economy of education …

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2 Comments on “Education, education and education”

  1. Perhaps there is a tension between ‘radically rethinking’ education and training policy, and continuing destabilising education and training with more policy churn. Rather than join Labor in a cross party consensus mightn’t the Tories remain committed to market competition led by employers?

    1. Thanks Gavin,
      You’re right – there is a major tension between attempting to develop a new mode of coordinating the sector and creating stability by reducing policy churn. Of course, reducing churn shouldn’t mean preventing well thought out policy change and in my view, immediate policy change is required to break the ideological grip of marketisation on the sector. But this needs to be done in a way that safeguards E&T from frivolous subsequent changes that come from new governments or just new ministers wanting to make their mark. The key point I’d argue is that we should aim to depoliticise E&T to stop it getting bundled up in things like culture wars which underpins churn and attempting to create some kind of cross-party consensus would help with that. Would the Tories remain committed to market competition? Almost certainly. Labour will be fairly keen on competition as well! But perhaps consensus could be built around a Tertiary model that shifts the role of the state from market regulation to coordination; a transition from a market to a system could still maintain some hierarchical stratification, but within a much more horizontally diverse set of E&T pathways.

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