Grants of up to £9,000 for adults to take part in education and training throughout their lives is a policy Sir Vince Cable hopes will reinvigorate the Liberal Democrats' standing as the "party of education", and it is a policy he now hopes his party’s members will support.
Not long after becoming the Liberal Democrat leader in 2017, Sir Vince said the party had to “go major” on adult education and retraining. So last June, he convened an independent commission on lifelong learning.
The commission reported back today and is suggesting a grants-based system, which would see three contributions of £3,000 invested into universal Personal Education and Skills Accounts (PESAs) when adults turn 25, 40 and 55 years old. They would be designed to encourage saving towards the costs of education and training throughout life.
More news: Adult learners drop to 20-year low
“I launched this idea 18 months ago at my first party conference and I wanted us to take this as our first big issue because I think it unites that set of issues – about how you adapt to rapidly changing technology, how you address the agenda of the ‘left behind’," Sir Vince said, speaking exclusively to Tes.
“I also want the party to be the party of education. That’s what we used to be. It got rather lost in coalition government, for reasons you are aware of. I want us to get back as the party that has education at the top of our list and in a way that I think makes fundamental sense.”
He added: “The share of the education budget that goes on adults is absolutely derisory. It’s about 1.5 per cent, it’s just ridiculous.”
Policy would cost £1.3 billion per year
According to a House of Commons Library briefing paper from December, once apprenticeships are excluded, the adult education budget fell from £2.5 billion in 2010 to £1.5 billion this year. The PESA policy would initially cost around £1.3 billion per year, which was, said chair of the commission Rajay Naik, chief commercial officer at Study Group, “a big sum of money but we should put it in context”.
“You could pay for this by simply redistributing the existing money that is already spent on adult education. That doesn’t even take account of the huge funds that are already in the apprenticeship budget.”
He added: “It is incredibly viable, and crucially I think the framework and the mechanism we have built over the last year as we have been considering this works for the different key stages in people’s lives, and also encourages additional investment from other sources, from employers to the NHS or a whole host of other bodies.
“You can imagine an environment where alongside the salary of a role, or a bonus, or a pension, an amount would be invested into your personal education and skills account. That you trigger a bit of a culture change. Also, crucially, you would have a mechanism by which when people have those major moments in their lives – being made redundant, for example – there is a way for them to retrain and reskill. This could help to reduce the costs on the mental health, or Department for Work and Pensions budgets too.”
Not repeating mistakes of past learning accounts
The policy will be going to the party’s conference in the autumn and Sir Vince said he hopes it will be “a major part of our educational offer”.
He added: "We’ve got to do it in a modern way and a way that overcomes some of the problems that the Labour Party had when they introduced this 20 years ago. It collapsed in a heap."
New Labour's individual learner account programme was scrapped after little over a year after it fell victim to fraud. The Public Accounts Committee found the £290 million lost the taxpayer £97 million to fraud and abuse.
Sir Vince said a modern solution was needed. “We have got to think through the problems and come up with a more modern and sensible way of doing it and also a more ambitious way of doing it. I would have thought we would get all-party support [for this] but I want the Lib Dems leading on this and making it one of the key bits of our offering.”
Civil servants and ministers 'do not understand adult education'
Sir Vince acknowledged that for five years as business secretary he oversaw cuts to further education – including the adult-education budget.
He said: “When I got into the government, we were having to make big cuts across the board – you will remember all the traumas around universities. But I found it very difficult to persuade the civil servants and indeed government that both vocational education and adult education really mattered. I mean, their overriding concern was high-profile higher education…‘We must not antagonise the graduate class’ – and, unfortunately, we did.
“One of the big battles I fought in government was to defend the £300 million adult community budget, and I did, I ring-fenced it. The opposition from the Treasury and the rest of government was just unbelievable. All they could see was that this was a nice pot of money that we could raid for more politically attractive ideas. I think probably they have now. Certainly, during that very difficult time, we protected it.
“I suppose what’s happened is that in general the main parties, civil service, really haven’t understood why adult education matters. It’s still seen as a kind of hobby thing. The idea that this is absolutely essential for a modern society – they just haven’t got it. The reason we want to prioritise it is because we know it is incredibly important.”
Hopes for Spending Review
Sir Vince said he thinks there has been a softening in attitudes by the government towards further education from his time in Whitehall – but only in terms of rhetoric and not resources. “I did my best to shield the further education sector because they get hit more seriously than universities who can top up their income with fees. Since then my understanding is that the FE sector has continued to be clobbered quite hard. I’m hoping [that] in the spending review, that will be changed. People are making the right kind of noises.
“There is a separate issue with the fees. We’re going to get the Augar review in a few weeks’ time, which I fear is almost certainly going to take us backwards. Because if they just cut the top fee level, you know what will happen: universities get less income. It won’t affect graduates because they still pay their 9p in the pound. It’s just gesture politics of the worst kind and it will hurt higher education.
“As far as we’re concerned as a party, we haven’t yet set out the policy for the next general election, but I think the expectation is that we will want to convert the current system into a graduate tax system, which it effectively is in practice but to do so in name so that you don’t have this psychological hangover of debt – which, frankly, I don’t think affects young people, but the political perception is negative and we have got to address that.”
Asked what he would have his PESA allowance on, had he received one, Sir Vince said: “I would like to have gone back and studied maths, probably. I did it to A level but I have never really done advanced maths. The other thing would be to learn music properly. As a typical seven-year-old, I learned my scales and then just played football with my friends.”