With Brexit done and a light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to the vaccine programme, the government looks like it is beginning to turn its attention to vital areas of domestic policy, and particularly to those that will deliver on manifesto promises that have inevitably taken a bit of a backseat in the past year.
The prime minister has repeated his commitment in the past couple of weeks to "spread opportunity" and "deliver for people who felt left behind". It’s felt a little like the "levelling up" manifesto commitment has been little more than a slogan until now and we know that this prime minister and many predecessors have enjoyed coining those – the "third way" and "big society" come to mind. The chancellor seems to enjoy it, too, with his plan for jobs, but the announcement this week of a package of measures on skills has the promise of more than a vote-winning slogan.
I hope that promise is realised because there are mountains to climb on skills, given the impact the pandemic has had on the economy. Unemployment has risen and will rise further, with an estimated 600,000 18- to 24-year-olds pushed into unemployment in the coming year alone and structural shifts that will leave thousands of people with skills and experience in sectors like retail and hospitality that are not recruiting, while there are skills gaps and recruitment difficulties in others like health and digital.
Post-16 reform: The announcements at a glance
All of that is on top of the longstanding challenges our economy already faced and that have not gone away: persistently stagnant productivity, regional inequalities in educational achievement and life chances, increasing numbers of employers finding it impossible to recruit skilled people and fundamental changes happening to work and our economy in response to the climate crisis, technology and our new place in the world.
FE White Paper: Levelling up funding between colleges and universities
The risk has always been that levelling up is seen simply as spending more money per capita on infrastructure – railways, roads, schools, town centres. After all, one should never underestimate the attractiveness to most politicians of donning a hi-viz vest and hard hat and cutting the ribbon on a shiny new building. The Skills for Jobs package, though, suggests the government is keen to go further and think about four key facets of levelling up: people, places, productivity and civic institutions.
The government’s own review of post-18 education in 2019 exposed how skewed education spending is towards the 50 per cent who go on to higher education. Over £8 billion is spent on around 1.2 million undergraduate students in England while in further education only £2.3 billion supports 2.2 million students. While higher education student numbers and funding have risen over the past decade, in further education the funding and the numbers have been cut by more than half. This is a neglect of half the population who understandably feel a little left behind, and an imbalance that will take many years of college funding growth to overcome. Today needs to be just the start of that adjustment.
That national picture is stark, but it’s only when the regional inequalities are laid on top that the real meaning of the "left behind" crystallises. Take that 50 per cent participation in higher education figure. It’s totemic because it was, of course, Tony Blair who set it as a target in the 1990s and its achievement is something to applaud. Indeed, well over 50 per cent of 30-year-olds in London have benefited from higher education. In the North East and South West, though, is it only 30 per cent and only 35 per cent in the North West. Not so good, fuelling a bigger sense of injustice. Not the forgotten 50 per cent but the forgotten two thirds.
The third part of this is about boosting productivity and supporting businesses to seize the opportunities of net zero, new technologies and innovation, and to be able to access suitable R&D. In most communities, this boost will need to happen in thousands of small and medium-sized businesses, often those hard to reach, let alone persuade. They need the local specialist advice on skills that can support business change if they are to compete and stay successful. That’s why the package is so significant with support for colleges to offer that advice across all of our communities, locally and professionally. Some employers can drive skills in partnership with colleges, others need support and trusted advice.
Finally, though, the government’s package is significant because it promises to support colleges to succeed, as civic institutions, working closely with others, meeting the needs of people, places and productivity. It signals an end to the decade of neglect that colleges have suffered and promises a decade of growth, development and impact. It’s warm words and potential for now, but with the right investment at the Budget and spending review, and implemented in partnership with colleges and other providers, this could be a turning point for further education.
The White Paper suggests that the government is giving a vote of confidence in colleges, knowing that they will step up to deliver. I welcome the trust that the government is giving to colleges and the opportunities that are opened up. We need to use this platform to make sure that the changes we have been asking for are properly implemented, and that the investment colleges deserve to secure their place in the education system and in every community is delivered. With this set of policies, sensible implementation and proper funding, they can truly "deliver for people who feel left behind".
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges