Chris Skidmore: Ministers need a place-based approach to skills

11 Mar

Chris Skidmore is MP for Kingswood and was Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Very soon the Skills Bill will become law. This is a welcome development, since the bill is a jewel in the crown of the Government’s ambitions for levelling-up. Robert Halfon, the Chair of the Education Select Committee, has praised the Bill as a clear step towards achieving a full-blown ‘skills revolution’ for the UK.

Yet, I am concerned that the Bill in its current form does not go far enough in addressing a common problem in our education system – the centralisation of skills and opportunities in a small cluster of towns and cities, and the broad ‘hollowing-out’ of other areas as a result.

For far too long, the UK’s school leavers have faced a stark choice: stay in their home communities, or leave to pursue opportunities for training, education, and professional advancement elsewhere.

Some are lucky enough to grow up in prosperous towns and cities that are home to thriving industries and well-established university and college campuses – but not enough. For most ambitious 18-year-olds, moving on up means moving out.

Often, the places where they undertake their post-18 training and education are where they end up settling once they finish it. They feel the magnetic pull of one of a major city like London, Manchester or Birmingham. Returning home becomes an occasional familial formality.

Of course, it is only right that learners should strive for excellence, and pursue the best options for skills training and scholarly education available to them. But we need to recognise that this comes with a cost, both for them and for the places they come from.

For learners, it is the cost of dislocation. They are uprooted from their intimate networks of families and friends. Leaving behind the areas where they grew up is a natural wrench. And that pain is only compounded by the social and financial burdens of re-establishing themselves in a new place.

For the areas themselves, it is the cost of a ‘brain drain’. Local communities are starved of the eager innovators and determined talent they need to grow and develop. Their economies stagnate, their industries atrophy, their labour markets shrink, and their high streets fall silent.

This is an unsustainable situation. If levelling up is to achieve its aims for spreading prosperity and opportunity across the UK more evenly, it has to reconcile the interests of learners and communities.

new report by the Lifelong Education Commission and local partners in Doncaster could provide a roadmap for doing just that. The report explores the concept of a Talent and Innovation Ecosystem (TIE); a model that would pool all learning assets into one place to create a borough-wide community of learners, employers, and educators.

Essentially, this would be a partnership whose stakeholders would be tasked with devising new learning programmes in response to pressing local problems. However, key policy changes are needed if TIE is ever to get off the ground.

Firstly, local authorities must be awarded new place-based budgets, giving them the flexibility and accountability needed for skills and education spending to be redirected to areas most in need of development. Furthermore, a statutory ‘right to retrain’ should be given to all learners, regardless of which qualifications they have previously achieved.

The Skills Bill set out its vision of lifelong learning through the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE), which is now the subject of a sector-wide consultation. However, without a structural underpinning, this policy will fail to tackle the fundamental problem of regional skills inequality.

At the moment, LLE resembles a leaky bucket – built to carry resources to the places that need it, but with enough holes that whatever investment is poured in ultimately trickles away before it reaches its destination. Plugging those leaks will require a systematic model for local skills which ensures that Government investment is channelled towards local areas and local problems. The Doncaster report provides just such a model.

The Government has the chance to make the UK world-leading in place-based learning. Places like Doncaster have set a gold standard for how local learning ecosystems should work. Local authorities everywhere in the UK now need to be empowered and entrusted to follow its example.

Chris Skidmore MP is a former Universities Minister, and Chair of the Lifelong Education Commission hosted by ResPublica. He is on Twitter as @CSkidmoreUK

Marius S. Ostrowski: Four ways to improve the Skills Bill

15 Feb

Dr Marius S. Ostrowski is Senior Public Policy Researcher at ResPublica, leading policy research and development for the Lifelong Education Commission.

Can the UK study its way into a future-proof economy? That is the question that the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which is due to enter Report stage on February 21, seeks to answer. We can predict a few possible answers to this straight off the bat.

‘Unequivocally yes’ has been the view of the Government, for example, which has pitched the Bill as a decisive step towards more local, flexible, and better-quality qualifications. ‘Yes, but not like this’ has been the response of its parliamentary critics, who have already subjected the Bill to a litany of critiques and amendments.

Perhaps the most accurate answer to this question, however, is a cautious yet optimistic one: ‘yes, but only if we take this further’.

This is because the Skills Bill, despite some genuinely welcome areas of reform, misses several key opportunities for effectively transforming post-16 learning. Happily, there are a few avenues to address these shortfalls and create a skills system that is genuinely future-proof.

Firstly, the Government should follow the logic of its flagship T-levels policy, and introduce fully integrated academic and vocational skills credentials from higher apprenticeships up to PhDs, with students taking ‘on-the-job’ and classroom-based learning modules that would be treated as part of a single integrated course.

Similar to the ‘DIY’ approach of the US system, students should be allowed to construct their own bespoke qualifications using both academic and vocational modules as building blocks.

Further, it should be made far easier for learners to transfer these credits between institutions, both within and across academic, integrated, and vocational education ‘streams’. Without this, learners are all-too-often placed in a situation of wasting their time and funding on courses that are mutually incompatible, incompletely accredited, or even not universally recognised.

A second change should be to give employers a greater financial and logistical stake in offering reskilling programmes. Ahead of the Bill’s third Commons reading, an amendment has been tabled by Peter Aldous MP that seeks to ensure that adult learners remain eligible for Universal Credit if they pursue qualifications designed to help them secure a job.

This is no doubt a valuable contribution, but we should be wary of replacing the logic of workfare with that of skillfare. The danger here is that UC recipients could be pushed onto skills courses of dubious value, just so they can ‘earn’ their welfare benefits.

Instead, we should switch the focus from (would-be) employees to employers. Greater onus should be placed on businesses to include retraining support in redundancy settlements with their (soon to be ex-) workers.

The Government should also carve out a far broader role in such ‘outplacement’ support for existing providers of in-work training and development such as ‘onboarding’, orientation, management and software training courses, etc. This would enable a smoother transition from role to role for employees, and perhaps reduce the need for re-jigged redundancy settlements in the first place.

A third change to the Skills Bill relates to the need to clarify the balance between local and national skills improvement frameworks in British education.

Given huge regional variations in sectoral specialisation, growth, and decline, lifetime learning strategies are an obvious candidate for inclusion in devolution deals. Indeed, there have already been calls to strengthen the role of mayoral combined authorities and local further and higher education during the Bill’s examination in Parliament.

In order to avoid needless divisions between metropolitan and county authorities, the Government should add a significant skills improvement dimension to ‘county deals’ – such as those proposed for Nottinghamshire and Lancashire.

This must include giving local authorities decisive control over the work of Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs), including – as per Labour MP Kathryn Smyth’s suggestion – the power to choose which employer representative bodies they want to work with.

A final change to the Bill would be for the Government to commit to an annual review of skills levels in England and Wales. This review should offer a detailed overview of the economic effects of a fully-integrated hybrid course, along with data on the up-take of said qualifications. In addition, it should cover all qualifications from entry level up to Level 8, with details on the size, composition, and results of each cohort.

Furnishing this with information on the status of learners after finishing their course would create a means for measuring the concrete effectiveness of each course in furnishing learners with useful and marketable new skills.

Overall, these four recommendations boil down to the need to put local authorities in charge of skills improvement by granting them the power to make adult education work for local needs. including the scope to directly fund individual courses they want to incentivise as part of their regional development strategies.

The Government must give local authorities the logistical capacity and the autonomy to make sophisticated forecasts about their own economic future, and plan their reskilling provisions accordingly. This would go a long way towards addressing what is missing from Skills Bill – creating a robust UK skills system to match the pressures of a changing economy, while also providing individuals with the means to engage in continuous self-development throughout their lives.

Emily Carver: Free speech is in peril at universities. But the Government has gone too far in trying to police the issue.

5 May

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The doctrine that “speech is violence” has gone mainstream. The notion is troubling and nonsensical in equal measure, yet it has wormed its way into UK universities, and now sits at the heart of renewed efforts by institutions up and down the country to clamp down on “offensive” speech.

This week it was reported that Edinburgh University has issued speech guidance to its staff on transgender issues. This includes asking lecturers to include their preferred pronouns in emails, wear rainbow lanyards on campuses, refrain from using potentially offensive labels such as “man” or “woman”, and to avoid using such phrases as “all women hate their periods”, which could be deemed to be a “microaggression” to some students.

It’s remarkable that “microaggression” has become part of our lexicon. But this nebulous term, which was coined specifically to describe acts of racism in 1970s America, now seemingly inspires the aforementioned guidance, which will see universities attempt to dictate the parameters of acceptable speech. And Scotland is not a unique case: several other Russell Group universities have also issued similar advice.

Those in favour claim that this measure will protect minorities and foster a more tolerant society – but they fail to acknowledge that the restrictions could backfire. It doesn’t take a seasoned historian to recognise that such aggressive attempts to limit speech may end up breeding a culture of suspicion, rather than one of openness and tolerance (I imagine it is now near impossible at some of our supposedly world-class universities for academics to express their objections to such guidance fear of reputational and professional damage).

Even if most lecturers at Edinburgh University will gladly abide by the rules, guidance such as this should not become the norm. A central tenet of a free society is freedom of expression; those who hold unpopular opinions to express themselves just as much as those whose views fit the du jour, progressive, shibboleth. It is troubling that anyone might feel coerced to put their pronouns in their email signature, or to wear a rainbow lanyard, for fear of ostracisation.

Such attempts to control speech in our universities are symptomatic of a culture that has become increasingly hostile to opinion that challenges certain world views. It’s hard not to see this most recent guidance issued by one of the UK’s top universities as anything other than a concerted effort to further one set of approved ideas over others.

Fundamentally, that lecturers – who last time I checked are paid to teach and encourage critical thinking – should be put in a position where they are afraid to “misspeak” is nothing short of an affront to a liberal democracy and poses a fundamental risk to academic freedom.

The 2019 Conservative manifesto contained a promise to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities”. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, has in recent months substantiated this, with a series of proposals to do just that, including the appointment of a “free speech champion” to investigate potential infringements, such as the wrongful dismissal of academics for political reasons. Further measures include a new pledge to make free speech a condition of being registered as a higher education institution and for being able to access public funding.

While it is of course welcome that the Government intends to support academics who lose their jobs due to political discrimination, attempts to impose further bureaucracy on universities may end up doing very little to remedy the problem.

There is a real danger that overregulation of the education system could lead to a loss of institutional autonomy, and freedom to criticise government policy, which is vitally important if we are to sustain a culture of academic freedom. The Russell Group of leading universities has expressed legitimate concerns over the additional bureaucracy and constraints new regulations may impose, which should not be dismissed.

Practically, as Marc Glendening of the Institute of Economic Affairs has pointed out, the Government may well find itself hamstrung by already existing legislation, rendering top-down attempts to protect freedom of speech futile.

In order to uphold free speech in this country, the Government could start by reviewing the Equality Act 2010, which makes universities subject to its “harassment” provision. This provision is nebulously defined as words and actions that violate a “person’s dignity” and have the effect of “creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment for that person.”

While (hopefully) few people would wish to create such an environment, these terms, in law, are dangerously vague and are identified by the effect they have, not the intention of the perpetrator. The Education Act 1986 also gives license to universities to ban speakers “likely to express unlawful speech”.

Governments will always be tempted to add more laws to the statute book. Indeed, many politicians see it as their sole raison d’etre – a way to show they’ve made a tangible change. But if this government is serious about restoring free speech in our country, it should start by doing away with is to do away with legislation that is actively curtailing freedom of speech.