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FE white paper – a missed opportunity to boost retraining and skills 

Published date
We need far more from the government on skills to support the economic recovery. 

Today saw the publication of the long awaited further education (FE) and skill white paper, Skills for Jobs. There are no major surprises or new announcements as most of the key policy proposals had already been trailed by the government over the past year. 

Many major decisions have also been pushed down the line, including key issues like long-term funding for FE and skills, which will have to wait until the spending review in the autumn.

The government is doing likewise for its full response to the review of post-18 education and skills led by Philip Augar that reported in May 2019. A very short interim response has been published alongside the white paper. 

There is little in the white paper to address the scale of action needed now on skills to support the economic recovery. 

For example, there are no significant new announcements to boost retraining in the near future to combat unemployment, beyond existing plans to roll out the adult level 3 entitlement and bootcamp training programmes. 

Unions are not mentioned anywhere in the white paper. 

There is also no reference to the puzzling decision by government to cut the grant for the Union Learning Fund in spite of the independent evidence showing its impact in boosting access to learning and skills, especially for disadvantaged groups. 

Funding and participation levels 

The white paper appears at the most challenging of times. Even before the pandemic hit, investment on skills by the state and employers had been in long-term decline.

The hardest hit have been adults relying on access to college courses or training from their employer. 

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, government spending on adults attending classroom-based courses in colleges has been cut by 50% since 2010 and annual attendance has nearly halved to 1.5 million (and this compares with 4.4 million adult learners back in 2005!). 

Combined with this, employers have been offering fewer training opportunities.

Recent government statistics show a sharp increase in the proportion of employers who are not providing any training at all. Between 2017 and 2019, non-training employers increased from 34% to 39%. Between 2015 and 2019 the proportion of workers not receiving any training at all increased from 37% to 40% and the average annual spend by employers on training per employee fell from £1,700 to £1,500. 

The UK lags well behind other countries in giving adults a second chance to learn new skills and achieve their potential.

Government spending is just two-thirds of the European average on adult education and UK employers invest just half the EU average in training for their workers.

TUC research shows that the total volume of workplace training has fallen by around 60% since the mid-1990s and that young adults and those with lower-level qualifications have been bearing the brunt of this in recent years. 

National Skills Fund and the level 3 entitlement 

A major element of the plans to boost adult learning will be through the National Skills Fund and the new entitlement for adults to be able to access free learning or training to achieve a qualification at level 3 if they have not already done so previously. 

The TUC welcomed the original recommendation by the Augar Review on the level 3 entitlement. 

However, we have concerns that, as it stands, the current entitlement won’t deliver for many adults. It excludes qualifications in many sectors - including those hardest hit by the pandemic - and many adults will be ineligible on the basis of level 3 qualifications they acquired up to decades ago. 

The TUC will continue to call for a right to retrain and associated reforms (e.g. a right to paid time off to train) to help people gain the necessary skills to avoid unemployment and to take up new job opportunities. 

As a previous blog has highlighted what we urgently need is an expansive retraining programme that should be made available to all workers at risk of redundancy, not just those who do not already have a level 3 qualification. 

The government has committed to spend £500 million each year on the National Skills Fund. However, an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that this will only reverse about one fifth of the reduction in government spending on adult education and skills since 2010.

In addition, the NSF spending projection for 2020-21 is £375million, which is already an underspend of £125 million in the first year (see our skills policy newsletter for further analysis). 

Lifelong Loan Entitlement 

The White Paper does describe longer-term reforms designed to develop a lifelong loan entitlement that can be used flexibly for sub-degree higher level technical qualifications at levels 4 and 5 as well as degrees. 

This proposal does have some possible merits, including that it could support access to funding on a more flexible and modular basis and develop greater parity between our FE and HE systems.  

However, there is a danger that one long-term impact will be that the excessively high levels of student debt affecting many university students will become a reality for many more people. 

In its response UCU has said that while the white paper does “recognise the need for more stable long-term funding in the sector, it is concerning that the government is planning to load students with even more debt by extending loans in further education.” 

NUS has highlighted that if government is going to introduce any new flexible loan system “to upskill and retrain for the new economy, we need to increase availability of maintenance funding for students and provide grants for learning.” This is also an outstanding recommendation by the Augar Review. 

A highly employer-led approach 

The white paper is very clear about giving employers the sole remit for agreeing the standards for all technical qualifications and apprenticeships and for shaping “technical skills provision so that it meets local labour market skills needs.” 

This is very different to arrangements in most other countries where employers, unions and other stakeholders come together to agree such standards and to influence training and skills provision at geographical, sector and national levels.  

The government’s own Industrial Strategy Council has recommended that we look at adopting the approach in other countries where there is “a greater role for employer representative and employee representative organisations (i.e. social partners) than exists in the UK.” 

The employer-led approach also goes against the grain of giving more people ownership of their career development and skills by encouraging them to access skills entitlements to plan their future in our fast changing economy. 

FE workforce 

There is a whole chapter in the white paper on supporting the development of the FE workforce but with little reference to the hugely important role of employees in support roles. And there is no mention of some of the key recommendations by the Independent Commission on the College of the Future

For example, the commission’s recommendations for FE in England included: a new starting salary of £30,000 for teaching staff in colleges to tackle the pay gap with schools; and, a national social partnership between government, the Association for Colleges and trade unions to look at long-term strategic workforce challenges.

In summary, the white paper does little to boost skills and support Britain's economic recovery. 

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