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David Goodhart on how to transform UK training

Three ideas for an emergency training package aimed at school-leavers and adult retrainers.

By: David Goodhart

Training. What a turn-off. The very word casts a shadow over the page. That is partly because it has become such a specialised field, awash in hundreds of different programmes producing less and less of what we need as a society. Most policymakers don’t understand it, let alone citizens.

The Covid-19 crisis is a chance to change this. The economy is on the point of a great reshaping and if the state can pay the wages of millions it can support the retraining of millions.

Too much of our education/training spend now goes on 18-19 year olds in higher education doing full-time residential courses lasting three or four years, meaning we over-produce then grade-inflate too many bachelor degrees. One third of graduates are not in graduate jobs, while we suffer debilitating shortages in skilled trades, construction and middle-skill technician jobs (including the vital lab technicians we see on television).

People in policy circles talk endlessly about ‘lifelong learning’, yet adult education and re-education are in freefall and the apprenticeship system is not working for school leavers.

Here are three ideas for an emergency training package—aimed mainly at non-university bound school-leavers and adult retrainers.

First, an “opportunity grant” of £3,000 for every individual over 21, the money to be drawn down by the providers of approved job-relevant courses. Individuals cannot see the costs and benefits of different courses of action so need an official training map to describe available courses and their costs, the job opportunities after a course, the average pay for that skill etc. The Government could use the map to guide people to skill shortage areas and might offer higher grants for a coder or construction electrician.

Second, suspend the current apprenticeship levy and replace it with a simplified model focused on school leavers (less than 10 per cent now enter an apprenticeship) with Government and employers splitting the full cost 50:50. The current levy covers less than one third of the total cost, so employers have used it on discretionary training for older workers.

Government should also promote good training by employers via public procurement rules.

Third, current bail-out conditions provide Government with leverage to weed out weaker university courses and create a sub-set of ‘applied universities’, undoing the mistaken abolition of polytechnics in 1992. Many post-1992 universities are already largely vocational but Government should insist that they offer courses aimed at a wider range of students: 18 month/two year courses, part-time courses and so on.

The UK must remain a global centre of education and research; indeed it should look to develop even further in this direction, but not allow a global focus, especially in higher education, to distract us from sorting out the glaring problems in our own backyard.


David Goodhart’s report A Training Opportunity in the Crisis is available on the Policy Exchange website

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All Comments (8)

  • Yes, agree entirely. Higher education is for many a terrible con job: £40,000 debt for a degree in urban studies from the “University” of Spalding. And no chance of employment. An imposition and a delusion aimed at our poorest kids. Meanwhile, thousands of engineering jobs remain unfilled in the UK because there are too few apprenticeships, too little learning on the job.

    • Quite right.

      It can only be a matter of time before the wholesale debasement of university degrees leads to a ‘buyers strike’.

  • I think the above is worthy but it misses the mark. When we were Industrialised we had an effective and efficient system for producing all the engineers, chemists etc which we needed through the ONC/HNC City and Guilds systems operated through the colleges of technology and similar. Doncaster had hundreds of very competent analysts. ( there would have been no difficulty in recruiting the analysts needed for Covid 19 testing then because there were huge numbers of labs and people working in them with the necessary skills.) The system was demanding with day release 9am to 9pm and a further 6 till 9 evening done after work. After Thatcher dismantled our industry the Technical Colleges scrapped these excellent courses. Post HNC there was lots of opportunity to go on to get degrees and degree equivalents via the professional institutions. –Osbourne with his extremely stupid ‘ march of the makers’ idea seemed to have the idea that we could just wave a magic wand and overnight restore the damage to our industrial capacity and the educational systems which underpinned them. Lots of the subsequent training systems set up by private operators were little more than money making rackets which provided very low level skill sets via their training programs.

  • Some great ideas, but £3000 may be too much now People have been bumped into doing more online ?
    Part time attendance seems necessary: linked either to part-time online learning, along with decent coaching/ mentoring.
    Or part time éducation with part time work: learning while having real life applications.. as in apprenticeships , but ideally less rigid and less minutely assessed item by item.

    I am also v suspicious of the suggestion that public procurement
    Rules should be encouraged: as a Small consultancy we endlessly find perfectly do-able research projects are ruled out by the overheads involved in the tender process. Fine to have procurement principles, but don’t require every bidder to evidence Compliance with every Aspirational requirement: why not allow self declaration, and if you really don’t trust them ask the winning bidder to evidence! I’m not sure what this remark was aiming to address.

  • It is, I think, remarkable that there is an almost complete lack of private coding schools/academies in the UK. We’ve seen that in places like India, the initiative of private coding academies has equipped hundreds of thousands of Indians with core software & coding abilities which we need, but all too often lack.

    These could initially be ‘summer schools’ for school and student age people. But in addition, I think there would be huge demand from slightly older people who appreciate that right now they really do need to be able to work in Python, C, or at the very least SQL.

  • Many countries have ideas worth emulating – the recent decision by the Australias – to increase greatly the cost of humanities course whilst lowering the fees for vocational training and STEM courses.

    Singapore subsidises all those who wish to train in medicine – so Drs and nurses receive a bursary whilst training. On completion, they are given a job within the country – for the next 5 years nurses pay back some of the subsidy, Doctors for 7. Then they are given a bonus for staying and go up the pay scale. It means they are less reliant on importing medical staff from abroad. They train and retain their own workers.

    It may also be worth looking at the Guild system in Germany which allowed Germany to circumvent freedom of movement rules for many trades. In order to operate in many German trades you have to have received your training by the German Guild for that trade. The guild itself pays for the training – then the qualified craftsperson pays a subscription to the guild for the rest of their working life (in that trade) which pays for the training of other apprentices. As a result, standards of work are high, and wages protected from the free market.

    Many good ideas to be had…

  • I agree, but there’s a cultural change to be made as well as fiscal. Most people who end up in Further Education accompanied by a sense that they have failed in some way. They are assessed and streamed away from A levels very promptly by schools so they do not affect league tables and schools themselves attach less value to vocational training. In Germany for example, there is no gulf in perception like there is here.

    The danger of unpicking the polytechnic/quasi university problem is that you create competition between HE and FE colleges. That would be an unfair fight given the chronic uderfunding of FE and the resources of the universities.

    I’m also concerned the government are overcommitted to private sector training providers, who are potentially going to be the beneficiaries of much of the financial stimulus without an effective contribution.

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