Why the PM’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee won’t work

The majority of those at risk of unemployment won’t be covered by the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, warns Richard Brabner
4th November 2020, 5:09pm
Richard Brabner


Why the PM’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee won’t work

Coronavirus: Why Boris Johnson's Lifetime Skills Guarantee Won't Work

When Boris Johnson was shadow minister for higher education in 2006 - back before we'd heard about the "credit crunch", let alone Brexit and Covid - he penned a witty and colourful essay on the future of university policy.

He said, partly tongue-in-cheek: "For generations, the British ruling classes have tried to persuade young people that there is 'parity of esteem' between academic and vocational courses..."

He went on to say: "Every time we try to pretend that vocational qualifications are just as good as academic ones - every time we say that NVQs are as good as GCSEs - the maddeningly self-interested young people of today tell us to pull the other one." 

What the Boris of 2006 may not have realised, however, was that his prescient words were describing the approach of a future Johnsonian administration.

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Need to know: Boris Johnson to announce 'Lifetime Skills Guarantee'

A few weeks ago, at the launch of his Lifetime Skills Guarantee, the prime minister said: "If we are going to reform our post-18 education, we must go much further. We've got to end the pointless, nonsensical gulf that has been fixed for generations - more than 100 years - between the so-called academic and the so-called practical varieties of education." He was also a little rueful about student choice, skills shortages and the labour market.

Coronavirus: Flaws in the Lifetime Skills Guarantee

Of course, "new Boris" might be music to the ears of those in further education. And let's be clear here - more funding and support for our colleges is exactly what our tertiary system needs, and there's much to welcome in the prime minister's recent speech. But as the Boris of yesteryear would have understood, for any new education and training policy to work it needs to place learner demand at its heart.

This truth has never been more important. Analysis for the UPP Foundation shows that there are 5 million jobs at risk due to the consequences of Covid-19, of which 3 million are non-graduate jobs.

Yet, 75 to 80 per cent of those most at risk of unemployment won't be covered by the Lifetime Skills Guarantee because they are either not eligible or want higher-level training, and are not motivated by opportunities in shortage areas of the economy.

We polled non-graduates for the report to ascertain their feelings about training. We found that they were less likely to be motivated to train into jobs where are lots of employment opportunities available in a particular industry (chosen by 14 per cent), compared with other motivations such as lifestyle factors, including working near home (36 per cent) or balancing family commitments (28 per cent).

When offered a broad range of courses in which they could hypothetically retrain, there was no clear consensus from the poll. In fact, over eight in 10 respondents did not choose the most popular topic, which is business. 

There is also a substantial proportion of non-graduates who aspire to gain a degree, including 57 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds, 50 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds, and 39 per cent of 35-to 44-year-olds.

A flexible system

In summary, non-graduates' motivations and choices are varied and multi-faceted. Therefore, a choice of a level 3 qualification in a specific field - most likely to be chosen based on labour market shortage - is likely to appeal to only a tiny fraction of the 3.1 million non-graduates at risk of losing their job. By overly worrying about the labour market and not student demand, many people who would have been transformed by the Lifetime Skills Guarantee will miss out.

Instead, we must build flexibility into the system through a learner account or similar, which allows students - not the state - to decide which courses they wish to access.

The prime minister should remember his scepticism about government interference and rediscover his trust of student choice.

Richard Brabner is director of the UPP Foundation

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