‘No more excuses: it's time to invest in skills’

Pressure is growing on the government to increase spending on further education, writes Stephen Evans

Stephen Evans

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We need to invest in learning and skills for post-Brexit growth – and this message was hit home for me with the publication of three reports this week.

The first was the Migration Advisory Committee report, which was published on Tuesday. This looked at the impact of migration, concluding that its overall effects are relatively small and that other changes, such as the large fall in the pound since 2016, have a much bigger impact.

It also sets out some options for the UK’s post-Brexit migration system. In essence, it argues for reductions to low-skilled migration (apart from potentially a special scheme for agriculture), and a level playing field for EU and non-EU migrants. The massive caveat is that migration rules between the UK and EU might be part of the trade negotiations.

Nonetheless, this could be a seismic shift for the UK labour market. Any reduction in migration (which may come about with or without a change in the rules) will have a big effect on employers. It will increase the need for us to grow our own talent and meet more of our skill needs domestically.

'Productivity is crucial'

The second report was an analysis of the causes of the UK productivity slowdown by McKinsey. I was pleased to speak at a Centre for London and McKinsey roundtable on the report.

Productivity – the amount each worker produces – is crucial. In the long term, it helps to determine living standards and the amount of money raised for public services. UK productivity is about 30 per cent lower than in the US, Germany and France, and productivity growth has flatlined since 2008.

Part of the reason for the slowdown over the past decade identified by McKinsey is underinvestment by UK firms. We hear a lot about the rise of the robots potentially displacing jobs, but part of the UK’s story is the lower investment in robots and other forms of technology across a range of sectors. Overall, we need more robots, not fewer.

More ambition around basic skills is needed

Another key cause of our weak productivity is low skills. I was delighted to see the McKinsey report highlighting basic skills. This is something I’ve been talking about for some time; 9 million people have low literacy and/or numeracy rates, yet the number of adults learning these skills has fallen by 25 per cent in the past five years.

We need a far higher ambition – backed by action and investment. Of course, we need to do better on technical education and widening access to learning throughout life, too; an ageing population plus economic change demands a revolution in lifelong learning.

This links to the third report that captured my attention. This was the Institute for Fiscal Studies report on education funding. In essence, it showed that further education has faced a tougher funding environment than schools and universities.

By the end of this decade, funding for 16- to 18-year-olds will be the same, accounting for inflation, as it was in 2006-7. For adults, the total number of learners has fallen from 4.7 million in 2004 to 2.2 million in 2016. Linked to this, funding for adult skills has been cut by 45 per cent since 2009-10. I’m sure none of this will be a surprise to many of you.

The 'squeakiest' wheel 

What pleased me was the national media attention this got. This feels like it has the potential to be different than previous reports highlighting funding challenges in FE.

At our Festival of Learning Parliamentary reception in June, skills minister Anne Milton said it is the squeakiest wheel that gets the oil. I wonder if this is the start of our sector being “squeakier”.

The challenge is to keep up the pressure, particularly with a spending review coming up in 2019. The Love our Colleges campaign brings together the Association of Colleges and education unions, and culminates in the first ever Colleges Week.

The Learning and Work Institute’s Festival of Learning will continue to celebrate the best in adult learning. I think the key is to keep telling the story, build as many advocates as possible, and make the case in ways the decision-makers recognise.

We know learning makes a difference in so many ways.

Making the case for investment in learning and skills, as a way to meet our future skill needs and boosting productivity, must be part of our case to the Treasury.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute

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