After initially being promised by the government last Autumn, this week the wait for the Further Education White Paper finally came to an end as the Department for Education published “Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth”.
The question is was it worth the wait?
Put simply, no.
Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson said the white paper would be “revolutionary” and “exciting and bold” but it’s safe to say it falls short.
Years of cuts and underfunding of further education have led to the crisis that we saw even before the pandemic hit and now times are even harder.
We know that cuts have consequences. A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that adult education, further education and skills spending on young people have been the worst hit by austerity since 2010. We have also seen spending on classroom-based adult education or apprenticeships decrease by over a third during this same time – in part due to policies centred on increased reliance on student loans and the end of government subsidies for countless courses.
Our members in the further education sector and beyond were crying out for some long-overdue bold changes to breathe life back into the sector and invest in our futures, and although government focus on further education is welcome, they will undoubtedly be feeling let down by this missed opportunity.
The reality is that the government had the perfect chance to take our colleges back into public ownership – something it was reported the Department for Education was seriously considering last May. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, colleges are already in the public sector yet in spite of all the talk of levelling up, the government failed to act yet again.
When it comes to skills, they can’t even claim to be in the dark as the government’s own statistics show in just two years there has been a 5 per cent increase in the number of employers offering zero training and a £200 drop in the average annual amount employers are spending on upskilling workers. The same government figures show that 40 per cent of workers receive no training at all – another figure which is on the rise.
To truly buck these trends and counteract a decade of austerity we need strong action from the government. Most workers won’t benefit from the Lifetime Skills Guarantee for a whole host of reasons – be it based on qualifications they already acquired decades ago or the fact that many sectors are excluded from the scheme. The scope should be broader – particularly as many of these excluded sectors are those that have been the biggest victims of the pandemic, for example, travel, hospitality, leisure, retail, media and the arts.
In these uncertain times, the government focus should be on keeping people in employment and there are so many different initiatives they could be pursuing to see this through.
Everyone should have the right to retrain to be able to take up new job prospects, avoid unemployment or pursue new challenges in emerging areas like green jobs. People should be able to access a free careers service at any age to help them discover new opportunities, and training should be seen as a part of working life with paid time off to train as workers shouldn’t have to choose between upskilling and getting paid. There should also be similar protections for apprentices to ensure that their training is not derailed as a result of the pandemic.
The government pledged to achieve a more integrated skills system through the white paper. If this was truly a priority, then they would be encouraging strong social partnerships between workers, employers and trade unions. However in reality in recent times the government has set its sights on dismantling arguably one of the most successful social partnership schemes in existence when, in the middle of the pandemic, they made it a priority to end the UnionLearn scheme.
For more than two decades, UnionLearn has provided workers with access to skills and training at work through their unions. In 2019, 200,000 workers benefited from this fund and learned a whole host of vital new skills as a direct result. Of these 200,000, 62,000 people gained certificates in basic English, maths and IT and thousands received their first ever qualifications.
The benefits don’t stop there. It’s not just these individuals whose lives are changed for the better but we all reap the rewards of the £1.4 billion boost the scheme generates within the economy through increased productivity and higher wages. Yet the government remains committed to ending the Union Learning Fund effective from March 2021 – in just two months’ time. It must reverse this decision.
If Gavin Williamson was really committed to the Further Education White Paper being “bold and exciting”, he should have had proper consultation with trade unions because from continuing UnionLearn to investing in further education and from the right to retrain to bringing further education colleges back into public ownership, he could’ve learnt a thing or two to help him in his own job.
We all have a part to play in ensuring the government can’t ignore workers’ voices on these crucial issues and there are so many ways we can all do our bit as trade unionists.
Union reps, you have the power to raise these issues with your employers directly and help to facilitate a joint union and industry response to the white paper and these issues. This will be a sure fire way of getting the government’s attention and raising the profile of our concerns.
Equally you can all contact your own MP – whether it’s the MP for where you live or if you write to the MP covering your place of work as a workplace – and ask them to call for funding for further education colleges, apprenticeships and the retention of the vital union learn fund.
Our power is in our collective and we can only win change if we all work together.
By Unite research officer Roisin McDermott