The UK team did a great job at EuroSkills 2018 in Budapest last week, with 9th place overall in a field of 27 nations. Our 22 competitors came home with one gold and three bronze medals, as well as seven medallions of excellence. They were a credit to their families and to their country and I was delighted to be able to go out there to see them in action.
The international skills competitions are a great showcase for technical education, for helping to show how wonderful it is to see people at the pinnacle of their professions. It’s very difficult not to get excited by beautiful dovetail joints in crafted cabinets and a whole host of other skills on show. The attitude, dedication and application shown by the young people is inspirational, as is the support, care and coaching of the experts who support them from colleges, employers and training providers.
So all good then? We can surely look forward confidently on the skills front and relax about the "system" we have? Well, I’m afraid not, for several reasons. Perhaps the most worrying sign that all is not well in the land of post-16 education and skills is Justine Greening’s contribution to a fringe event at her party’s conference, that Treasury sees spending on education as a cost, not an investment. That, perhaps more than any other statement, spells out the fundamental problem we need to face up to; and as Brexit nears, and the number of skilled and semi-skilled EU nationals moving here to work slows down, the challenge will only heighten.
Drop in funding
There are many other indicators that all is not rosy in the skills garden. Nick Hillman’s blog, ‘If the evidence for lifelong learning is so persuasive, why aren’t policy makers persuaded by it’, sets out a conundrum I have been fighting with for most of my career. I’ve yet to meet a politician who is not moved, inspired and excited by young people and adults who have achieved their ambitions through lifelong learning. I cannot imagine anyone visiting the EuroSkills competition and not coming away believing that we need to invest more in technical education. And yet, when it comes to Treasury decisions about priorities, we know that colleges and technical education have come behind schools and universities time and again in the last decade.
Here’s some more evidence. The last decade has seen a 45 per cent drop in the adult education budget and a 30 per cent overall cut in college budgets. That translates into a drop in enrolments in engineering from 150,000 per year to only 50,000 per year and in health and social care from around 680,000 to 220,000. Both are sectors facing skills shortages.
There’s also lots of evidence when it comes to funding for 16 – 18 year olds. In 1990, 16 -18 year olds were funded 50 per cent higher than for 11-16 year olds, reflecting the need for expensive equipment, facilities, teaching staff who were up to date with industry and smaller class sizes. The cuts and freezes of the last decade have seen that premium, common to every other OECD nation and in private schools, reverse to funding which is at least 8 per cent below the 11 – 16 levels. To put this another way, our young people are benefitting from around 15 hours per week teaching and support, with their OECD peers getting between 25 and 30 hours. That’s a substantial and unjustifiable gap.
Ramping up the rhetoric
I could go on and I certainly don’t want to rain on the EuroSkills Team UK parade. The funding figures I share here make me even more in awe of the excellence and dedication shown by our competitors and the colleges and organisations supporting them. Just think how much more we could do with fair funding for colleges and technical education.
The main political parties are all ramping up the rhetoric on technical and professional education. There are commissions meeting and policies being debated, but in the end, I am very old-fashioned about this. Until I see the money, all sorts of warm and fine words simply do not butter the parsnips, and certainly won’t ensure future inclusive and successful economic growth.
We are now just two weeks away from Colleges Week – our chance to show politicians why they need to stop seeing further education as a cost – it is an investment. And a failure to invest in colleges is a failure to invest in the country.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges