Feature: Gizza skill

By Alex Stevenson

One of the most obvious, and unfortunate, consequences of a recession is that lots of people lose their jobs. Getting out of this mess requires giving them the skills to help them return to work.

A fair proportion of them might decide they want to take this opportunity and switch to a new career. Some might not have the option of hanging around and be forced into this course of action.

The question is: is the government providing them with the opportunities to ‘reskill’ and enable them to make that change in their working lives?

A boom solution

In December 2006 Sandy Leitch published his final report on British skills. His assessment was as brutal as it was frank. The UK, Lord Leitch said, was “on track to achieve undistinguished mediocrity”.

“Without increased skills, we would condemn ourselves to a lingering decline in competitiveness, diminishing economic growth and a bleaker future for all,” he said. “The case for action is compelling and urgent.”

The Leitch report was particularly critical of the number of the people who were emerging from years of education with next to no skills at all. Forty per cent of the workforce did not hold level two qualifications. Illiteracy and numeracy rates remained alarmingly high. So something needed to be done as the UK progressively fell behind rates of improvement in other countries.

The government’s response was the Train 2 Gain scheme, which asked employers to ‘take the skills pledge’. This “promise to drive your business forward by training your employees” was the foundation for helping businesses develop the skills of their workers. Many were eligible for funding and the government has already committed to increasing the total pot to just over £1 billion by 2010/11.

Yet the success of the scheme is now gravely in doubt. Things have changed since 2007, when the government promised to provide “an enormous shift in attitudes and aspirations”.

Phil Willis, chairman of the Commons’ innovation, universities, skills and science select committee explained how. “That was great when the economy was doing well. Skills shortages were being masked by an influx of foreign, mainly European, labour.” Now, by contrast, rising unemployment and increased pressure on jobs and companies has revealed a growing problem.

The ‘British jobs for British workers’ debacle exposed this in a deeply embarrassing way for the government. Protestors at the Lindsey oil refinery in January this year made clear their anger at energy firm Total’s decision to bring in Italian workers in preference to unskilled British ones.

“The English workforce didn’t have skills,” Mr Willis lamented. “That is unforgivable. For an employer to say we can get cheaper labour is one thing. To justify it on the basis of skills is an indictment for all concerned.”

Increased unemployment because of exposure to the European Union’s free movement of Labour is one consequence of the recession. But there are also increasing concerns the government’s policies are undermining the ability of those who have lost their jobs to find new skills.

Adult learning

One area which many fear the government is guilty of neglecting is that of adult learning. Once the refuge for evening classes in irrelevant subjects, this sector of further education has developed to become a key provider for the skills sector.

Yet many are uncompromising about their fears over the impact of the recession on this sector. 1.4 million adult learning places have been lost since the 2005 general election. And now, as the need to strengthen and reinforce this vital sector gathers urgency, the government appears to be turning its back on it.

As businesses began to withdraw their support for Train 2 Gain, the government has begun diverting increasing amounts of money from the LSE funding streams for adult learning that go to colleges and other providers into Train 2 Gain.

Dan Taubman, senior national education officer at the University and Colleges Union, explained that this year money given to further education institutions for adult learning dropped by seven per cent, so the money could be channelled into Train 2 Gain. This “narrowing funding agenda” is deeply concerning, he argued, because getting the basics right is no longer what’s required in a recession.

“It’s not really what employers want,” he explained. “What employers really want are people with level three qualifications – frontline supervisors, electricians, plumbers, whatever. They’re relatively fine for management and graduates – we’re good at that. What we’re not good at is turning out the non-graduate but skilled person, no matter what the skill is.”

This, Mr Willis added, can be summed up as “the law of unintended consequences”. The government has stuck to its target of decreasing the number of people without those basic skills. But the shortage for level three qualifications has not been addressed as a result.

John Hayes, the Conservatives’ shadow minister for further education, higher education and lifelong learning, summed up the problem with adult learning. “The government have seen that kind of learning as less significant than trying to promote their flagship, Train 2 Gain,” he said.

According to the Institute of Adult Continuing Education, Mr Taubman continued, participation is dropping across the board. The biggest falls are in skilled manual workers, where numbers slipped from 40 per cent to 33 per cent between 2006 and 2007.

“The government like to say this is all about informal adult education – this is where all the numbers have been lost. It ain’t,” Mr Taubman said.

“It isn’t just evening classes where people are dropping out – it’s the whole caboodle. It’s not that Train 2 Gain is a pile of sh*t – it’s just too crude a weapon now for what’s happening.”

Second degrees

Another major criticism of the government’s current policies springs from its 2007 decision to scrap the subsidy for equivalent level qualifications (ELQs) – usually, but not always, people doing second degrees. The idea at the time was straightforward: funding would be “reprioritised to increase and widen participation” at university. That has since attracted scathing criticism.

The UCU’s general secretary Sally Hunt said in December last year that the decision made the government’s commitment to a flexible workforce seem “completely ludicrous”.

“We’ve had whole areas of the country where courses have disappeared,” she said.

“A course works on the numbers of students who they have in there. Take away the numbers who are coming into reskill and it’s actually undermined courses in different parts of the country.”

Mr Hayes rejected the government’s claim that the only losers would be those taking a second degree as an extravagance.

“If you look at the kind of people who do that they are not people who are indulgently wanting to do a second degree for the sake of it,” Mr Hayes said.

“They’re not the sort of people who studied Greek and now want to study pharmacy – or the other way round. They are typically people who’ve either been out of the workplace for a while and need to rejuvenate their qualifications.”

A mother returning to work after having had children, or those in a profession which requires them to update their skills – these are the sorts of people the Tories, and others, argue are suffering because of the ELQs subsidy removal.

And the recession has served to heighten the situation, especially for those graduates who have lost their jobs in the City. “We need ELQs to re-equip them,” Mr Willis said. “That’s the agenda the government isn’t grasping at all.”

Mr Hayes added: “Just at the time when more people. need to rethink the direction in which they’re travelling in terms of their job and may well need a qualification. we are withdrawing support from the organisations that provide those kind of levels of opportunities. It is an extraordinary decision in the light of the circumstances.”

It is the impact on colleges where there is most concern at present.

Fortunately all is not yet lost. One lecturer at the Open University, one of the institutions most threatened by the trends outlined above, said things were improving. There had been serious concerns from above about ELQs, he argued, but these were now being mitigated. “It’s not as serious a threat as it once was. when universities first found out, they went ballistic. Now they seem to be happier.”

Record investment

The government argues its recent changes to Train 2 Gain have mitigated much of the impact of these concerns. Certainly its record £4.5 billion investment in further education and skills is going a long way towards “giving people the skills and training they need to get into and on at work and improve their life chances”.

“There’s all sorts of opportunities out there for people who want to improve their skills at whatever level really,” a Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills spokesman said.

“It’s only right that we concentrate some of our funding on people who’ve got not basic level of skills, otherwise they’ve got no hope at all.”

The number of adults gaining vocational qualifications in the last academic year reached record numbers. Apprenticeships are also on the rise. And Train 2 Gain has shifted its priority over to small- and medium-sized businesses.

“We must ensure that we continue to help people access the skills and training they need to get into and on at work, especially in tougher times,” skills secretary John Denham said last month.

“That is why the government is giving real help now to individuals, employers and businesses so they can emerge stronger from the downturn.”

For many, however, these shifts are coming too late. Earlier this month the Universities of Manchester and Reading announced cuts to their adult learning courses.

Times Higher Education magazine quoted a spokesman as saying the decision was “an inevitable consequence of decline in student demand … and the progressive withdrawal over recent years of government funding for this activity”.

Despite record funding, concerns remain about where the government is putting it as the recession deepens. The Open University lecturer added: “There is a realisation there is going to be some kind of squeeze, and education is likely to be an easy target.” Further difficult choices lie ahead.