Link between education and economic performance is based on a false premise, says former UCU president. Whitehall's head of FE has been forced to defend the Government against claims that there is no proven connection between skills and economic success.
It comes as ministers face increasing criticism over the emphasis on skills training at the expense of adult education
Susan Pember, director of further education at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, was challenged at a conference organised by Niace, the adult education body.
Sponsored by FE Focus, the conference was the first in a series examining the past, present and future of adult education in light of changing government priorities, which have seen the loss of more than a million places for over-18s.
Dennis Hayes, head of the centre of professional learning at Canterbury Christ Church University and former joint president of the University and College Union, said: "If you look at studies of the world economy, there is no connection between the qualification or skill level and economic performance. Utterly no connection. There are countries where the level of qualifications is going up hugely and the economy has collapsed.
"This whole strategy is based on assumptions about the economy that don't make sense . It's a political rather than an economic project."
Dr Hayes cited the examples of Switzerland, where there are below-average numbers in higher education but the economy is strong, and Egypt, which has made great strides in improving levels of qualification without seeing much improvement in its economy.
He said people need a broad education, rather than staking everything on narrow skills for work.
The Leitch report, which laid out the Government's strategy for focusing on what it believes to be economically valuable skills, relied on research from the Sector Skills Development Agency and Learning and Skills Council, which found that skills were associated with high-performance workplaces.
The research found that about a fifth of the difference in productivity between the UK and France and Germany was caused by higher skills in the latter countries.
And while the researchers claimed that better skills could help a country to profit from new, valuable markets, they admitted that this effect was difficult to measure.
Ms Pember said: "The research I'm interested in is about people who need literacy qualifications. If they don't get literacy skills, they haven't got the qualifications and their salary is a couple of thousand pounds less than someone with the piece of paper. That's fact.
"The benefit of qualifications comes not just from a statistical basis, but from the people I see at awards ceremonies with tears in their eyes when they receive their certificates. That's what matters."
The agenda for the Leitch report is about improving the economy and the prospects of individuals to ensure there is social mobility, Ms Pember said. "That's why I believe in education, training and skills."
The next conference in the series FE in the 21st Century: What Works for Adults takes place on November 29. Bill Rammell, minister for further and higher education, is due to attend. It will be held at the London Chamber of Commerce.
Leading article, page 4.