Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
We face a nightmare on skills street. Over a third of workers in England do not hold suitable qualifications for the jobs they do. Around nine million working-age adults in England have low basic skills. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution approaching, 28 per cent of jobs currently taken by 16- to 24-year-olds could be at risk of automation by the 2030s.
Our skills problem is a social justice issue. While the lack of skills in society ultimately touches us all, the most disadvantaged individuals pay the highest price. They have the most to gain from up-skilling their way out of deprivation, but are the least likely to do so.
Education is crucial to the skills revolution and social justice – FE colleges, universities, degrees and apprenticeships all have vital roles to play.
I welcome the Government’s recent work and its recognition of the role of universities. Since becoming Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah has been visiting campuses around the country. In his efforts to make sure universities thrive, he has been talking to those directly affected: the students.
This week, to boost value-for-money for students, Sam announced the extension of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) to subject-level. This trial will go further than the current TEF. It will rate each degree course on the quality of teaching, the learning environment and graduate outcomes.
I agree that for individuals to make informed choices about academic courses, we must be transparent about the return they will bring. Universities feed into the jobs market. They exist to prepare students for the world of work and it of course makes sense to hold them accountable for the extent to which they do so. The new TEF is an important step forward in changing the way we recognise universities, putting more emphasis on teaching quality and employability.
These frameworks will also go some way in addressing the sometimes undeserved reputation of Russell Group Universities. Some of these institutions are highly ranked because of their research, not because they offer employability skills, quality teaching, and value for money for undergraduate students.
The Government’s work is important, but we desperately and urgently need to do more to address our skills deficit and bring about social justice.
To spark a skills revolution, we must go further than introducing new league tables. We need to transform the way we view education. We have to bring an end to the UK’s obsession with academic degrees and demand a dramatic increase in the delivery of basic skills and technical training by the Further Education and Higher Education sectors.
Rebalancing Further and Higher Education is crucial to delivering social justice. The disadvantaged have the most to gain by climbing the education ladder of opportunity out of deprivation and in to high skilled employment.
Alongside this rebalancing of Higher and Further Education, we need to look at redirecting funding allocations from academic courses towards courses and degrees focused on technical and basic skills. This is timely given this week’s Spring Statement. I welcome the Chancellor’s announcement that £80 million will be made available to small businesses keen to employ an apprentice, but a Spring Statement based on the ladder of opportunity would have further prioritised skills and social justice. It is only through the reallocation of funding that we will achieve the revolution in skills we desperately need and bring about social justice.
Financial incentives should go to universities teaching the skills we need ahead of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. There are skills shortages in several sectors. We need to think about how universities can specialise in these areas, allowing existing universities that do not provide a good return on academic courses to reinvent themselves as centres of technical excellence.
Additionally, a commitment could have been made in the Spring Statement to protect the funding of flexible, online and part-time Higher Education, like the Open University.
As the OU’s model clearly demonstrates, flexible learning can be a powerful vehicle for social justice. We must make it easy for people to learn flexibly throughout their lives. For those who are not able to build high value skills the first time around, or whose skills have been wiped out by a fast-changing labour market, it is important that our system offers a way back. The mere idea of taking one penny away from the flexible/earn and learn sector, while continuing to prop up mediocrity in some of the traditional sector, is scandalous.
Of course, the jewel in the crown of a revamped Further and Higher Education sector should be degree apprenticeships, which blend technical and academic education. Students earn as they learn, they do not incur mountains of debt, and they get good quality jobs at the end. They also help us meet our skills deficit, so they benefit society, too. There are currently just 11,600 degree apprenticeships. I hope that one day, half of all university students are doing them.
To boost the take up of degree apprenticeships, a portion of the enormous public subsidy of universities could be ring-fenced in future funding decisions, only to be accessed if the university offers degree apprenticeships. We could also redirect some of the £860 million that goes on outreach. After all, the most meaningful form of outreach is a tangible opportunity to learn and get a job, which degree apprenticeships deliver.
To achieve social justice, the most disadvantaged must have the same access to high skilled jobs as the most advantaged. Good education is the ladder of opportunity that propels social justice.
We must rebalance Further and Higher Education and reallocate funding to technical education. In doing so, we will boost skills and create a fluid and balanced system. The Treasury and Department for Education should build a skills strategy so Britain is prepared for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It would mean everyone, whatever their background, could climb the ladder of opportunity – to get the education, skills and training they deserve, and to achieve the jobs, security and prosperity, they and our country need.