Government’s ‘new industrial strategy’ is another grandiose vision that lacks funding and changes nothing in practice, says Sally Hunt.

When it comes to government policy on further education, things move at a fast and furious rate. Initiatives arrive like buses, a few at a time, and usually revolve around fixing the mess the last lot made. Unfortunately, we never come close to addressing the elephant in the room: what further education really needs is proper investment.

Theresa May’s new industrial strategy is a case in point. Another grandiose vision, with technical education at its centre, but once again the taste is of the same old wine in new bottles. Much was made of the £170m being invested in new institutes of technology when the plans were trailed over the weekend. Yet the ministers rolled out to give more details on the Sunday political programmes failed to do so.

A sum of £170m – the equivalent of 10 misfiring rockets or, to put it in Brexit terms, about three and a half days on Boris’s bus – is clearly not going to fund a range of buildings around the country. At less than £20m a region, the people most likely to be rubbing their hands are the brand consultants and sign writers.

The sad truth is that while politicians talk about parity of esteem between technical and academic education, their actions tell a different story. Last year, working with London Economics, UCU showed that the annual public investment for each apprentice aged 19 and over in England stands at just 18 per cent of what is spent on each higher education student annually, while the equivalent for other adult learners is even lower, at just 15 per cent.

It’s the same old wine in new bottles

This announcement does little if anything to genuinely address that fundamental problem. A real industrial policy would place investment in education and skills at its heart, and look to build human capital and capacity at every level so that our country is skills-ready, and everyone can play their part.

Indeed, when most experts agree that without the extensive retraining of adults, there will be a shortage of skilled workers, it becomes clear that government policy must address the fundamental funding crisis in adult education rather than tinker at the edges.

The great expansion of higher education in recent decades has contributed to successive increases in productivity as well as created significant benefits for society too. It is hard to imagine now that just 30 years ago only one in six young people went to university.

What we need to see now is a similar expansion of further education. How can we have a skills policy worthy of the name if we do not invest in the mum who wants to learn English so she can apply for a job; the bright school leaver who needs a bit of extra support to get into higher education or an advanced technical course; or the middle-aged man who needs a quick boost of digital skills to get another job?

Yet the truth is that we have lost over one million such people from further education since 2009. As UCU has argued, we would need an additional 15,000 teachers even to begin to restore the capacity that has been lost from the sector.

The industrial strategy contained all the banalities one would expect when politicians talk technical education: a proper alternative for people not going to university, praise for the German model, a cursory nod to improved careers advice and a mention of lifelong learning. Worryingly, the limited section on lifelong learning seemed to suggest that the answer was for people to finance their studies through loans.

However, my message to the Prime Minister is simple. Instead of another new initiative, give us something that will make a real difference: a clear mission to boost learning for all and, at last, the funding to match. 

 

Sally Hunt is General secretary at the University and College Union