Another View - Employers must not duck duty to invest in skills

13th August 2010 at 01:00
With the public sector facing cuts, businesses have a responsibility to train their staff

One of the great strengths and weaknesses of the public sector is that everyone has a stake in it. A consequence of that is that bad news is immediately brought to everyone's attention, hands are wrung, and the cry goes out that something must be done. Many times, this is a good thing.

One of the occasions when FE has received mass media attention in recent years was in the loss of adult education places with the Government's shift in priorities away from short courses towards full qualifications. With 1.5 million places in education lost once the dust settled, it was right that the decision was picked over and scrutinised by the public in whose name it was carried out.

But the corollary is that other events, just as significant, go unremarked because they take place in the private sector and are thought to be no one else's business. The news from the national employer skills survey that more than a million training places funded by employers were lost in the recession (page 29) is one such instance. Here is a loss of educational provision almost equal to the adult education slump, and were it not for the skills survey it would have been altogether invisible.

The fact that it will still pass by almost unremarked suggests, among other things, that the British public has thoroughly internalised the idea that education is something that should be provided by the state - and the state alone.

When the Government makes cuts, it is a matter of public interest and outcry. But when UK plc swings the axe, the cost is harder to count and barely seems to weigh against the accepted need for short-term profit.

But now the British public is stuck with two received ideas which it cannot reconcile: that education is the responsibility of the state, and that the state has no money left. The wider debate of whether rapid, deep cuts will tame the deficit or leave the recovery stillborn is framed in FE as whether employers' investment in training can recover before the public sector cuts bite.

At the moment, it does not look hopeful. Even if a million places were restored in one year, it would not compensate for any public sector cuts, let alone provide for the increase in training needed for Britain's progressively more forlorn attempt to be "world class" in skills.

But there are some encouraging signs. Colleges' increasing share of employers' spending will help them in the coming years, and employers' growing levels of satisfaction with their work makes further progress a possibility. The growing use of colleges and training providers for employer-funded training also suggests they have bought into the value of accredited national qualifications rather than in-house schemes of dubious transferable value. It is also a very good thing that the survey demolishes the myth that school leavers are not ready for work: apart from a few high-profile whingers - Tesco, I'm looking at you - employers overwhelmingly believe they are.

Tesco made headlines earlier this year by condemning the education system using little more than anecdotes and generalisations because it can trade on the belief that the private sector gets things done. If as a society we believe that employers have a stake in education and training and take their pronouncements seriously, perhaps it is time that we also expected them to take some responsibility for it. The cultural change where company reputations should depend on their commitment to training staff needs to start here.

Joseph Lee


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