Mind the gaps

06 Dec 2023

With a General Election on the horizon, Former Shadow Minister for Higher and Further Education and Skills (2015-19) and a co-founder of the Right to Learn campaign Gordon Marsden writes on the skills picture in England and examines steps a new Government could take to close persistant gaps.

A glass half full - or half empty? On the face of it, the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) and the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, yoked to the Bill that gained Royal Assent in September, ought to be positive news for universities, especially modern ones.

ELQs scrapped, a credit-driven system of student loans for modules and short courses with LLE flexibility for adult learners, some maintenance loans and a scattering of grants for some part-time students - ideas foreshadowed in the 2019 recommendations to the Labour Party from the Lifelong Learning Commission which as Shadow Minister I set up. The Right to Learn campaign, launched in December 2020, has grown out of the ethos of that commission, to combine social justice with lifelong learning to revive our economy, upskilling and reskilling for the challenges of the 2020s.

As always though, the devil is in the detail. If Labour wins the General Election, they will inherit at best a semi-skimmed Lifelong Learning Entitlement and Skills Guarantee and a hotchpotch in terms of who delivers what across England and across the UK. As well as Labour looking positively at the Blunkett Report from their Council of Skills Advisors, there are a number of asks for Labour in government which would make skills and lifelong learning genuinely three dimensional outcomes.

Would-be learners as well as those already in work should be able to progress fully from levels 1 and 2 right through to level 4 and beyond. As of now Minister Halfon’s famous ladder of opportunity has a couple of rungs missing - and not just apprenticeships. By squeezing out opportunities with their attacks on BTECs and defunding many level 2 and below courses, the current Government will be blocking many in work or on Universal Credit from seeking new skills or jobs.

Not only is this socially regressive, doing little to break through the so-called class ceiling, but the pipelines of progression for courses, especially in modern universities, and crucial for economic growth in the UK, will falter and dry up. There will simply not be enough would-be learners able to fuel them.

The block on maintenance support for distance learners should be lifted. The Government has resisted attempts in the Lifelong Learning Bill to give maintenance support for these learners - even though it was permitted during the pandemic. This risks forcing out learners; particularly parents with children, or rural learners with poor access to public transport, putting further strains on the Open University, adult colleges and many modern universities. Not to mention those FE colleges (including in Blackpool and the Fylde, where I was their local MP), able now to run higher level qualifications and award their own degrees, but with uncertainty over the numbers of distance learners and would-be applicants.

At present the arrangements for parent learners for childcare funding are complex and don’t cover all the costs. Post-16 young carers are blocked from getting a Carer’s Allowance if they study for more than 21 hours a week. Without change, many young carers (over 1,200 alone were identified in Blackpool), often living in low income households, will be substantially worse off and four times more likely to drop out of college or university than other students.

Latest figures from City and Guilds project nearly 860,000 young people as NEETs (not in employment, education or training). There are still 5-6 million adults without basic skills. The Multiply initiative was a start but its funding is inadequate and struggling, and there seem to be no similar initiatives to tackle literacy.

It was great therefore in July to hear Sir Keir Starmer pledge Labour’s support for oracy and speaking skills. He has followed that in his Conference speech and elsewhere, stressing the importance of life skills, with a broader curriculum pre-18, including self-expression, creativity, as well as digital skills. These are essential building blocks for post-16/18 and potential Initiatives for HE, dovetailing with literacy and citizenship initiatives, prioritising careers advice and mentoring to NEETs and adults.

Some of the asks here are relatively low cost - others could be spread across a five-year programme. The Blunkett Report cited cuts in training and employer investment in the last decade of around 15-20%. The 2019 Lifelong Learning Commission looked critically at the outcomes and effectiveness of current tax reliefs for employers for skills investment - estimated then to be costing the Treasury £3-4bn - and said they should be reviewed. Labour Treasury Ministers could take up that option, looking to reassign and redistribute some of that funding to pay for some of the initiatives mentioned here.

With a plethora of immediate crises hitting higher education the temptation to look to the short-term is great. Modern universities are particularly vulnerable, often affected by the fortunes of the communities and businesses around them, and without the safety net of reserves and endowments other HE institutions have. Adding to the cost of living crises, rents, accommodation, staff pay and conditions, we have a Government’ micromanaging HE through the OfS and freezing tuition fees, while doing little to tackle the need for more immediate support and maintenance funding, affecting students and would be learners.

These woes cannot become all absorbing. Universities must go beyond the usual channels if they want to be key players in the challenges of AI, Net Zero, a post-Covid digital world and demographic change.

One example is the millions of UK small businesses, co-workers, co-operatives and self-employed, growing fast in the 2020s digital world and home working. The Government has largely ignored them but they are key potential partners for HE, FE and in boosting skills. So are the combined authorities and elected mayors, with the money and strategies to launch ambitious skills and lifelong learning initiatives along with other local players, including the NHS. Some of the solutions to safeguarding HE’s funding and future with new learners can and must come from beyond Whitehall and the DfE. That is why we at Right to Learn have emphasised reaching out to other departments - DWP, the Department of Health, the Cabinet Office and the three successors to DBIS.

Right to Learn’s two latest events - with a wide array of speakers - covered how careers advice must target the right skills and learning, strategies for getting older people to return to work, linking universal credit to skills and what the UK Government should learn from its other nations, not just England, as well as an update from the Blunkett Report team. Future events will aim to feature devolution and levelling up, the challenge of Net Zero, a debate about apprenticeships and the Growth Levy and the OFS, as the General Election looms closer on the horizon.

Minding the gaps and joining up the dots of skills, careers and employment, bringing life chances and social cohesion must now become the watchwords for HE and lifelong learning. I saw this in action when, as Shadow Minister, I visited the University of East London, talking to academics and staff - and to students whose courses took them into the NHS and social care, with diverse ages and ethnicities, in a cohort split 50-50 between school leavers and mature learners.

That struck me again this March, listening to Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s Director for education and skills, deliver the HEPI Lecture at the Royal Society. Schleicher said lifelong learning was now critical for the UK to compete globally, warning that, compared to many other countries, Britain’s number of part-time learners was going the wrong way, with only a minority of older workers training while in their current job.

As the classic song from the World War 2 film Casablanca goes: “The fundamental things apply/as time goes by.”

It’s up to us to choose.

Gordon Marsden is a former Shadow Minister for Higher and Further Education and Skills (2015-19) and a co-founder of the Right to Learn campaign