Skills in opposition: Quantity sells, but quality is more transformational
When it comes to skills policy, governments like numbers.
From Labour’s targets to raise qualification rates across all levels to the Coalition government’s ‘priorities’ to get at least one out of every five young people into an apprenticeship programme by 2020, raising the qualification rates of the British workforce has dominated strategies to achieve economic growth and social justice over the past three decades.
Quantity sells. It creates the impression that policymakers are supporting employers and creating opportunity on a grand scale. But the lesson from Labour’s time in government is that while the numbers game generates headlines, the results are disappointing. Investment in education and training soared under Labour, resulting in solid improvements in the aptitude of the British workforce. Yet few would claim that this delivered on its promises.
The crux of the problem is weak demand for skills from employers, many of which compete not on the quality of their products and services but on price and cost. While quality requires a well-skilled workforce, in the UK a large section of the economy is comprised of low skilled, low paid jobs which offer few opportunities for progression. Evidence suggests that skills improvements have resulted in many people feeling over-qualified for their jobs.
Viewed in this light, skills policy is just one cog in a chain. The key is to change business competition strategies. Raising the skills of Britain’s management class would be a good place to start, targeting whole sectors by channelling business support through existing employer associations. A long term strategy should be to put in place an institutional framework which supports employers to compete on quality rather than cost, as seen in many northern European countries.
What does this mean for skills policy? Intervention is most needed to ensure education and training are transferable and support labour mobility. Yet targets to increase participation and qualification rates have often been achieved to the detriment of quality. Labour subsidised and accredited in-work training that frequently offered little content that might be valued in the wider sector or economy. Under both Labour and the Coalition the definition of what constitutes an apprenticeship has been weakened to suggest an upward trend in demand.
One reason for poor transferability is the weak institutional framework for skills, particularly in England, where there is little integration or cooperation between schools, colleges and employers. This is in stark contrast to European countries such as Germany and Denmark, where skills systems are governed by strong sectoral and local institutions that genuinely involve employers and employees, ensuring qualifications and training support entry and progression in work. A comprehensive system that offers clear pathways for progression will require new ways of working to foster cooperation within sectors and in local areas.
In the absence of strong unions able to advocate on behalf of learners, national frameworks must guarantee quality, starting by raising the national apprenticeship standards. Here comes the caveat: quality assurance would almost certainly reduce the numbers. This is because many in-work training programmes would not pass muster under European standards, where apprenticeships last a minimum of three years and apprentices spend at least a day a week learning deeper knowledge in a vocational college.
Yet if Labour – or indeed the Coalition – is to lead the way in rethinking policies to marry economic growth and social justice, the debate must shift to quality. For truly transformational policy, we need to move from a skill system that prioritises the immediate needs of employers to a long term strategy which also generates demand for skills by supporting managers to change their business models, and which takes into account the needs of British citizens for high quality and transferable qualifications that help them to get on in the labour market.