The general election delivered a landslide for the Conservatives. But what does it all mean for apprenticeships and training, asks Richard Alberg
The Conservative Party won an 80-seat majority, their largest since 1987. Among other outcomes, uncertainty around Brexit has temporarily abated. The Withdrawal Agreement has passed, and we will transition out of the European Union with just short of a year to negotiate a new trade agreement with the EU and other key trading blocks.
The broader impact of Brexit on our society and economy is, as yet, unknown. But what are the implications for the core business of apprenticeships and training?
The Conservative manifesto has promised, “significant numbers of new UK apprentices” for all new infrastructure projects. So we can expect new apprenticeships for those 40 new hospitals, new police officers and new nurses much discussed during the election. The manifesto also says the government will deliver a new National Skills Fund worth £3 billion throughout the next Parliament, a £500 million UK Shared Prosperity Fund to ‘replace’ the EU structural Fund, and £2 billion for the FE college estate.
The manifesto’s promises, however, create three thorny dilemmas for government, and it’s not clear how they will get around them.
First, as the editor of these pages rightly pointed out last year, there is little detail on how the apprenticeship levy overspend will be dealt with and whether the funding offered will be enough to plug the gaps in the FE sector after a decade of underfunding. I also note a report by the Office for Budget Responsibility which refers to a weakening of the economy and higher-than-anticipated government borrowing (not taking account of new spending promises in the manifesto). Does this mean that the manifesto is economically undeliverable?
Can the Conservatives get past their 40-year commitment to free-market belt-tightening?
Second, how does the need for investment in skills sit with the Conservatives’ traditional ideological reluctance towards investing to grow?
In a talk at his eponymous institute on 18 December, Tony Blair stated that he had not yet convinced anyone of the importance of the fourth industrial revolution. His comment was surprising, given the way that technology will irreversibly transform our economy and society, changing work, learning, our environment, and the way we live.
The UK is in a precarious position when it comes to the skills we need to excel both economically and socially to meet these immense social and cultural changes. It remains an open question as to whether the skill-based points system for immigration planned by the government, along with the degree of funding devoted to reskilling, will fill the yawning skills gaps threatening to undo our economy as we exit the EU. Radical action is needed, and the manifesto talks the talk around innovation. But can the Conservatives get past their 40-year commitment to free-market belt-tightening?
Lastly, no-one could have failed to notice that the Conservatives won by pulling voters away from Labour in the north of England, reassured by the promises of Brexit and change. So the analysis goes.
But it is not enough to make promises to this new voter base, comprised of the populations of declining small towns with shrinking numbers of young people. They also have to deliver, on skills training and much else besides. Might we then expect the government to start making noises about social mobility as well as productivity in its apprenticeship policy, balancing Level 2 and 3 against Level 6 and 7 (still popular with employers) or even tilting public spending to lower-level apprenticeships? Again, it is hard to see how the Conservative Party will square its interest in productivity gains with claims of improving social mobility and social justice.
So much remains uncertain. But what is undeniable is that the governing party will have to make critical pivots in its thinking to stave off economic decline and to hold onto its electoral gains. 2020 promises to be another interesting year in politics, with our sector grabbing an increasing number of its headlines.