Scott Kelly lectures in British Politics at New York University in London
The more the results of the general election are analysed, the starker the demographic divide appears. Whilst the youngest voters certainly swung decisively behind Labour, the party actually holds a significant advantage among voters from 18 to over 40. In the face of such a demographic time-bomb, it would be tempting for the Conservative Party to look for a quick fix. Yet, rather than vying with Labour on tuition fees, Tories should reflect on why the generational divide has opened into a chasm.
It may not be fashionable to think so, but conservatism has an intrinsic appeal to the young. Back in 1987, the last time Conservatives won an election by a landslide, Labour’s advantage amongst 18-24 year olds was only two per cent. Our vision of opportunity and just reward through effort once resonated. Rather than abandoning this message, we should seek to make it resonate once more. To do so, we must identity the barriers preventing young people from advancing in their careers, building a strong family and owning their own home.
As a key part of this process, we should consider whether further expansion of higher education is really the best way of helping young people to get ahead. There is increasing evidence that the market for graduates is now sated. It is in sub-degree technician level qualifications (in qualification terminology levels 4 and 5), that Britain lags behind its main competitors. It is in these skills that there are the biggest shortages, and the greatest prospect of boosting our flagging productivity through effective workforce development. The opportunity for young people to gain high-level work related skills would also help bridge the social divide between those who have a degree and those who do not.
Earning while learning was once a viable alternative to full-time university study, providing a vital ladder of opportunity for young people in employment. Rebuilding this path is highly desirable, but far from easy in practice. Despite substantial state investment, the burgeoning apprenticeship programme has not yet done enough to extend opportunity. It is easier and cheaper for employers to hire graduates in non-graduate jobs than it is for them to train school leavers. In practice, apprenticeships have largely expanded in low skilled occupations and provide little real opportunity for advancement. While the apprenticeship levy, and new employer developed apprenticeship frameworks are intended to address these issues, in practice they may well compound them.
The quickest way for employers to recoup the levy is to ensure that the training they provide already qualifies for funding. As a result, some of the new frameworks are narrowly focused. Other employers have found the process of developing frameworks too bureaucratic, and have resigned themselves to treating the new levy as a tax. Figures for May, the first since the levy came into operation, show a significant decline in the number of apprenticeship vacancies being advertised. As Tom Richmond, a former skills policy adviser, recently noted in the Times Educational Supplement, it is worrying that the civil servants who made such a hash of apprenticeship reform now have senior positions in the new Institute for Apprenticeships.
A concerted effort is required if we are ever to match the level of technical skills found in our key competitors. The new T levels are a good start, but they must provide a clear path to higher level qualifications studied in the workplace, not just the classroom. Funding for GCSE equivalent apprenticeships should be cut and redirected to those at higher levels. The new levy system should be fully integrated with the industrial strategy, so that additional money generated by the levy is effectively targeted at those industries that have skills shortages and will commit to providing effective training to fill those gaps. We must demonstrate that we are serious about workplace skills and about building a ladder of opportunity for young people through training.