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 https://policyexchange.org.uk/publication/a-training-opportunity-in-the-crisis/