This year’s State of the State report from Reform and Deloitte once again provides food for thought on the issues facing government and public services across the UK. Three of the headline findings resonated with the challenges and opportunities that colleges are trying to resolve locally and nationally. With colleges more in the spotlight now and a White Paper imminent from the Department for Education, it is worth exploring those findings in some more detail.
State of the State is based on a citizen survey and interviews with public sector leaders, providing a unique insight. I found it reassuring that the top headline finding this year was that the public wants action on jobs and a green recovery, backed up with 58 per cent believing that opportunities for young people will be worse as a result of the coronavirus. Both of those feel right as priorities, with the opportunities from a green recovery potentially able to solve the damage of the pandemic.
Among public sector leaders, the finding that caught my eye was how widespread the support was for levelling up. The caveat there being the need to back up the rhetoric by defining what it is, how it will be delivered and how devolution fits in. The hope inherent in public servants needs always to be balanced with the reality of delivery.
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All of these findings are the bread and butter of colleges. On jobs, the next few years will be tough, with the chancellor announcing in last week’s spending review that unemployment is expected to reach around 2.6 million next year. It is not only the scale that is worrying colleges, because the pandemic has had its biggest impact on sectors – retail, hospitality, leisure – that employ large numbers of younger and less qualified people. Their job prospects rely, in part, on how adept they are at moving into other sectors where vacancies should improve more quickly. To do that, they will need some help for retraining as well as the advice, mentoring and job search skills that JobCentre Plus can provide.
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The chancellor has recognised this, with investment coming for more JobCentre staff, for Kickstart and Restart. What we need now is to join up the skills investment to those programmes, nationally and locally, but it feels more complex and siloed than it needs to be. Colleges are now juggling the incentives, different funding pots and eligibility rules for Kickstart (and next year Restart) with sector-based work academies, bootcamps, apprenticeships, traineeships, the new level 3 national skills fund and wider adult education budget programmes. Not at all easy to join up and virtually incomprehensible to employers seeking new skilled staff.
The public’s support for a green recovery also needs more than the government’s investment in capital, so it’s good to see the new Green Jobs Taskforce launched last month to support the creation of two million skilled jobs to build back greener and reach net zero emissions by 2050. My question is whether this will come into play quickly enough for people wanting training now or whether it will be too focused only on the longer term.
The public’s concerns about young people feel right because in every other recession we have seen how that group suffers disproportionately in the short and longer terms. The "scarring" effect of recessions that commentators often mention comes from long periods of unemployment, insecure jobs and challenges to confidence, hope and self-esteem. That’s why we were not surprised to find that colleges have recruited around 20,000 additional young people this term, with more likely in the new year, and universities some 15,000 extra. At the same time, apprenticeship numbers have plummeted, reflecting the difficulties that most businesses are having.
My biggest concern is the cohort of young adults, perhaps the 19 to 30 age group, who have not achieved a level 3 or above qualification. To have a realistic chance of a good job, with prospects, security and decent pay, they are likely to need to improve their skills. Apprenticeships would normally be a great route, but we know numbers are down and likely to be low for a while. Full-time education and training might be free for some courses with the new National Skills Fund, but people still need to live, and there are no maintenance grants or loans to support them, unlike for their peers going on to higher education. Universal credit might be an option for some but there are restrictions that limit access to learning, which need urgent reform.
Finally, on to the public service leaders’ support for levelling up. The chancellor, through the new Levelling Up Fund, has signalled that government sees investment in infrastructure as delivering on this. That might be a key component, but colleges, as anchor institutions, want to add in the enterprise, support for businesses and the skills that are vital to this agenda. Colleges are keen to help convene the partnerships needed to deliver – with employers, other education providers, local government and others – a place-based solution that offers jobs, economic growth and prosperity for the long term rather than a new building, bypass or town centre makeover. Regeneration, we know, cannot be only about bricks and mortar if it is to truly level up people and places.
Next year I hope that State of the State can reflect on progress made in all these areas. The White Paper and the spring Budget will need to deliver for colleges as strategic partners, enabling them to play a full part in making sure the recovery is green, full of good jobs and supports the levelling up that so many people want to see.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges