FE Profile - 'Higher education is a big issue in the political arena'

12th November 2010 at 00:00
Dubbed `too lively and interesting' for politics, Labour's shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden is shaping up to be a formidable opponent for John Hayes

With Gordon Marsden now installed as Labour's shadow FE and skills minister, the political battle over education for adults will be fought between two history teachers.

Mr Marsden is a former Open University lecturer in humanities and was editor of History Today magazine for 12 years before becoming an MP. His opposite number, skills minister John Hayes, trained as a teacher of history and English.

So not only should Mr Marsden be familiar with his brief - he sat on the Skills Select Committee and used to chair the All-Party Parliamentary Skills Group - he should be more than capable of competing with the barrage of historical references and literary quotations that Mr Hayes adds to his public pronouncements.

The 57-year-old MP for Blackpool South is generous about his opponent, saying that Mr Hayes has identified that FE needs to trade on its ability to inspire.

"I think the thing about John is he understands - and it's refreshing in this day and age - he's a romantic, but he understands, as Ruskin understood, that you don't sell your product just by dealing in statistics," Mr Marsden said.

"It is important that we conduct the debate about further education and higher education and the links with skills, not just in the detailed context of changing patterns of study and qualifications, but about the broader aspirations that are what leads people to those qualifications.

"Vocational skills are not about arcane, complex processes; they are about life-changing experiences."

The Guardian's political sketchwriter Simon Hoggart wrote in 2001: "Mr Marsden is too lively and interesting to be a minister, but he's obviously trying to learn." Indeed so: after that, he did stints as a junior minister before being appointed shadow minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government straight after the election.

It remains the case that he can switch easily between the lively and interesting chat of a former academic and journalist and the kind of jargon-laden political-wonk detail that drives parliamentary sketchwriters to despair. What remains to be seen is how comfortable he is in the attack-dog role of opposition.

For now, he is emphasising the common ground between Labour and the Coalition Government on skills. This is partly out of necessity for a member of a party which is regrouping and redefining its position; or as Conservatives put it, "hasn't got a plan". So Mr Marsden ducks the question of what the skills system would look like if Labour had been re- elected.

"It's a very important point to make: when you are in opposition, the imperatives of what you do and how you develop things are different," he said. "But we do have, I think, a direction of travel - and the other thing that should be said is that, although there are significant differences, there was under the last government some commonality of view about key issues on both sides of the house."

He is critical of some in the Coalition for failing to recognise this. Apprenticeships rose from 67,000 in 1997 to an expected 250,000 last year, but ministers can sometimes present the continued growth as if it marked a break with the Labour administration.

"I sometimes think that some of the new ministers are a bit like Rip Van Winkle. They went to sleep in about 1990 and woke up in 2010, and thought it was all somehow miraculously happening in the previous years of the Conservative government - it wasn't," he said. "We are where we are, well on target on the last set of figures to reach the quarter of a million apprentices that the previous government set as its target. They have a good base and a good legacy, albeit that now - I would argue through their own economic policies - they are going to find it more difficult to sell in an environment where growth will rapidly decline in the public sector."

Mr Marsden sees FE as vulnerable, not only to the spending cuts outlined for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but from the whole contraction of the public sector. "The public sector has been a major area for apprenticeship growth, but also some of the private sector areas that have contributed to apprenticeship growth will be hit more than the average, such as construction," he said.

He adds that modelling by the House of Commons Library indicates that some colleges may see their budgets fall by even more than 25 per cent. Colleges will become more dependant on their 16-19 funding, he suggests.

Private sector money is vital, but Mr Marsden is sceptical it will arrive in time. "To move from a grant-based system to a loans system is a very big move," he said. "We cannot be certain how much income from the private sector will be leveraged in off the back of that, now that Train to Gain has been completely moved off the playing field, and the recent history of levering in private money is not totally encouraging."

Ministers have said that loans replacing government funding at level 3 for the over-25s will be linked to forthcoming learning accounts. Mr Marsden says it may be necessary for the government to ensure employers contribute, calling it a "tragedy" that controls were so poor under the Individual Learning Accounts (ILA) scheme it had to be closed down because of fraud.

The previous government later trialled new Skills Accounts, but they were more about finding out what public funding was available, rather than containing actual cash for training. Mr Marsden has distanced himself from this approach.

"I think most people out there believed that the concept behind ILAs was valid and a noble one, and one that needs to be revisited in a practical way," he said. "In my personal view, it can't just be a virtual learning account that lists what you might be able to get as benefits in certain points of your career.

"I think that is where government does have a role to play in bringing together a number of potential contributors to that pot, which includes employers as well as the individual."

Older learners will suffer if the government fails to replace public money with private, says Mr Marsden. Labour saw the engagement of older adults as central to achieving the targets set by Lord Leitch for international competitiveness in his 2006 review of skills in the UK.

"The challenge is that many people who historically we've all tried to coax back via further education, in terms of reskilling, upskilling, are going to miss out of that process," he said. The evidence was not "cast- iron", he added, but just as fees discourage some students from applying to university, the same rule was likely to apply for older learners.

He said: "The Government needs to look at past experience, past evidence. How soon can income-contingent loans lever in the extra money, while reassuring those people who are squeezed economically and might think, `Hang on, I don't want to take out a loan which might be a millstone around my neck for years and years'?"

"Particularly at a time when Government is saying to FE colleges, you're going to have to hike up your fees, we're going to discourage you from cross-subsidy, and particularly at a time when we're trying to coax back to the education market people who might have been out of it for 15 to 20 years - it's not the most attractive of prospectuses."

Despite these concerns, Mr Marsden senses a momentum gathering in further education and thinks we could be heading towards a future where lifelong learning is part of the lives of the majority of voters, and where FE gains new political importance as a result.

"Higher education, although it has always had very strong advocates, very strong lobbies and all the rest of it, was not part of the larger public political debate; it did not affect the vast majority of electors," he said. "But the combination of the expansion of higher education and, of course, all the changes in terms of tuition fees, made it a big issue in the political arena . Although the complexities of the funding structures baffle many people, the broad arguments for why we need skills, why we need to upskill older people, are getting across to more and more people."


Education: Stockport Grammar School, Cheshire, and New College, Oxford.

Postgraduate studies at the Warburg Institute, University of London, and a Kennedy scholar in politics and international relations at Harvard University.

Early career: Public affairs adviser with Hill amp; Knowlton, working for clients from English Heritage to pharmaceutical and agro-chemical companies.

Part-time humanities lecturer with the Open University for three years.

Editor of History Today, 1985-97.

Parliamentary career: MP for Blackpool South since 1997.

Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Skills Group until 2010.

Member of the Education and Skills Select Committee, 2005-07, and the Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee, 2007-09.

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