Levelling up reforms don’t match scale of the challenge

9 Feb 2022, 6:30

Skills inequalities are holding back entire communities and cannot be solved on the cheap, writes Dean Hochlaf

To level up the country, we need to level up skills.

The much-anticipated levelling up white paper has made improving skills a core mission for the government, as it grapples with the entrenched regional inequalities which plague the UK economy.

However, while ambitious rhetoric is welcome, it needs to be matched with investment and reform from government. On those fronts, the white paper is unfortunately lacking.

Regional inequalities take many forms, but one of the most pernicious disparities has been across skills and education. The latest data shows that 71 per cent of those in London held at least a level 3 qualification or higher (A level or equivalent), while 58.7 per cent held a level 4 qualification or higher (higher degree or equivalent).

In contrast, in the north east only 55.1 per cent of the population holds a level 3 qualification or higher and these proportions are not much greater across the rest of the north and Midlands.

Exacerbating the challenge to improve skills in left-behind communities has been austerity.

Evidence from the Institute for Fiscal Studies highlights how per-pupil spending in colleges fell by 12 per cent between 2010-11 and 2019-20, while the adult education budget was two-thirds lower in 2019-20 than in 2003-04.

Further, due to a combination of increasing demand and the pandemic, the IfS estimates that an additional £570 million would be needed by 2022-23 just to maintain student spending in real terms.

Unless a significant funding boost is forthcoming, we face a future where funding remains below where it was at the start of the 2010s.

Yet, there are substantial economic gains to be made from investing in skills and the FE sector.

Previous research from the Centre for Progressive Policy suggests that boosting basic skills alone could help create just over 300,000 employment opportunities in the most deprived parts of England, stimulating a significant increase in economic activity.

For these gains to be realised however, there must be a concerted effort to increase funding and transform the existing educational system, which for too long has undermined the potential of FE institutions.

It is not clear from the white paper that the promised reforms are proportionate to the scale of the challenge.

An additional £550 million for skills bootcamps and the establishment of a future skills unit are fine initiatives, but their impact will be limited if the FE sector remains underfunded.

The designation of deprived communities as education investment areas is a step in the right direction. There is also mention of creating new “elite sixth forms.” Whether these can contribute to levelling-up will depend on the detail.

Rolling out local skills improvement plans can help coordinate action on skills between business and educators, but it is important that every part of the community can play a part in fostering an environment that develops skills that will produce benefits now and in the future.

The targets feel underwhelming

We need action to tackle skills inequalities which are holding back entire communities, but we cannot do this on the cheap.

The white paper does a fine job of setting out clear targets and recognising the critical importance of improving skills.

However, while it sets out several positive policy developments, they feel underwhelming given the scale of the challenge that faces the FE sector.

After years of underinvestment and a pandemic that has threatened the prospects of an entire generation, it is imperative that resource matches rhetoric.

The success of the levelling-up agenda relies on making sure our FE colleges and institutions can equip as many people as possible with the skills they need for the benefit of their communities.

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