The prime minister is talking up technical education, but doesn’t have the goods to back up her words, according to the former Labour skills minister David Lammy MP
I agree with the prime minister in that the public debate on tertiary education has been dominated in the last few decades by higher education and universities, with nothing like the same level of attention paid to technical education, further education or the 50 per cent of young people who don’t go on to university.
But I would find it much easier to believe the government’s new-found commitment to “parity of esteem” between university and technical education if FE budgets had not been cut back to the bone since 2010.
We don’t need a review; we need fair funding and stability so colleges and providers know what their budgets are going to be from one year to the next. It was only 18 months ago that I led a campaign in Parliament to force a government U-turn on cuts of up to 50 per cent of 16- to 18-year-old apprentices, including hundreds of young people in my own constituency studying at the College of North East London.
Technical education has always been seen as the poor sibling of university
The truth is that technical education has always been seen as the poor sibling of university, both by policymakers and cabinet ministers who overwhelmingly went to our top universities, who want their own children to follow in their footsteps and who see a degree as the only route to success. Parity of esteem is impossible to achieve in these circumstances.
The university obsession of the political and media class lets down every young person who doesn’t follow the conveyor-belt model of A-levels, a Russell Group university degree and a graduate job. Are there any newspaper editors or ministers telling their own children to do an apprenticeship instead of a university degree?
For far too many in the Westminster bubble, the term “social mobility” simply means giving other people an opportunity to become more like them and their own ideas of success in life. Overwhelmingly, this model of success is a university degree and a white-collar job in an office.
Not only is this patronising, it’s plain wrong.
We need to look around us and call out this university obsession. Half of all debt-saddled graduates are taking non-graduate jobs in coffee shops, bars and retail, while those with a top technical qualifications are highly sought after by employers and can earn a fortune as an engineer, a coder or a programmer.
We need to look around us and call out this university obsession
Germany is consistently cited as an example of a productive, strong economy and it is no coincidence they are streets ahead of us on technical skills, with a dual model of tertiary education and outstanding provision of high-level technical education.
Apprenticeship numbers fell by 59 per cent following the imposition of the government’s levy. The government’s obsession with quantity instead of quality in hitting a target of three million starts by 2020 means that far too many of our young people are doing low-skill apprenticeships instead of the higher-level ones that will give them the skills they need to get on in life.
The number of adults (students aged 24+) enrolled on courses at level three or above has fallen by almost a fifth since 2010.
After significant pressure in the run-up to the budget, the government announced a £10 million flexible learning fund to support adult education – hardly the foundation for a revolution in night schools that would enable thousands of adults in former industrial heartlands and coastal downs to retrain.
The elephant in the room when it comes to any discussion of the state of our technical skills sector is of course Brexit, and in particular the hard Brexit that this government is determined to pursue. If the government is so determined to take us out of the single market and slash immigration, then where is the urgency about what comes next?
Who is going to do the jobs? Who is going to fill the skills gaps? Are we going to skill up our own people to drive our economy forwards post-Brexit? How? When? These are the questions that the prime minister’s speech hinted at but failed to answer.
David Lammy is the Labour MP for Tottenham