Lining up one generation against another


Willetts. Minister behind tuition fees

David Willetts, once Universities minister under David Cameron, now Chair at the Resolution Foundation has  made his name arguing that the current difficulties faced by young people are the result of the excesses enjoyed by their parents – the ‘baby boomer’ generation of the post-war years.  Willetts –  as architect of the  current tuition fees scandal, played his own part in making many young people’s lives much harder.

It’s certainly true that with employment opportunities in short supply, today’s young people will be the first generation worse off than the previous and that welfare policies and the tax system are stacked in favour of older people. As everybody knows, the younger generation are also spending a record share of their income on housing, in many cases, without being able to ever afford to buy their own place. Willetts now calls for increased taxes on income and wealth, to stop budget deficits ballooning and the NHS collapsing – policies that might seem more at home in socialist programmes.

It’s true that radically different economic policies are needed, to stop young people (the group also hit hardest by the economic crash) falling even further behind. But the major problem with his analysis is that, rather than being the consequence of global changes in production and the dismantling of tradition labour markets, youth’s difficulties are the result of an ‘age war’   which by implication prevents commonality of interests across generations or any recognition of major inequalities between different groups of young people.

For example, the poorest young people are invariably those with parents who have not enjoyed the wealth and privilege that people like Willetts have, while many parents have had to provide extensive financial support, provide accommodation or look after grandchildren as their own children struggle to survive.

The young people of the 21st century should not be considered a ‘lost generation’ that need compensating for their misfortune. Those that follow them will likely experience the same difficulties and face the same challenges.


A National Education Service, but also new policies for young people

A discussion paper by

Martin Allen & Patrick Ainley 

labour-roseWhile welcoming the Labour Party’s policies for state education, this contribution locates them in a wider historical perspective and argues that proposals for a National Education Service now need to be part of a much wider range of policies for young people. Young people have been the group worst affected in the years since the economic downturn with hourly wages and weekly earnings  falling fastest. Despite being the best qualified, this generation will be the first to be worse off than their parents and by far the most indebted.

Download     National Education Service


See also Forum Journal  60 (1)2018

Fees: Tories on the retreat?

library-la-trobe-study-students-159775Theresa May’s proposed ‘independent’ review of HE & FE funding received huge media attention –wrongly being sold as a commitment to lower tuition fees – a more ‘sensible’ response than Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to abolish them. In fact, there’ll be no definite proposals for a year and rather than having any independent status, the review will be by the Department of Education. Nevertheless, May’s announcement takes place in the context of huge support for Labour from young people, particularly current and future students, but it is also a response to the disastrous consequences of tripling tuition fees by the Tory-led Coalition.

It was intended that raising tuition fees would ‘price out’ large numbers of young people from HE.  It was also assumed that only elite institutions would be able to get away with charging the full fees as there would be far less demand for the ‘products’ of less prestigious universities so school leavers would turn to vocational training, particularly apprenticeships.  But of course, it hasn’t worked out like this because young people and their parents know that in most cases ‘vocational alternatives’ do not lead to secure employment. So, those who are qualified continue to apply for higher education in hopes of at least semi-professional employment, despite the debt entailed. As a result, 80% of degree providers have charged the full fee.

In addition to their failure to reduce numbers applying and thus restore university as an elitist institution, there are other issues for the government.  Tuition fee debt stands at £100 billion with estimates showing that 80% will never be repaid, as graduates end up in ‘non-graduate’ employment on salaries barely beyond (sometimes even below) the repayment threshold.  Some Tories have argued that this makes the current fee structure ‘progressive’ as nobody pays anything upfront.  But unpaid student debt (technically) gets added to future National Debt and the Tories, like other Neo-Liberal ideologues must confront their own rhetoric about the National Debt being a burden on free market forces and the tax payer.

But the main problem for the Tories is the lack of support from younger voters – and with the government on the rocks over Brexit, a potential electoral defeat to Corbyn and Labour. Rather than reject the market model of HE though, their review will try and exploit its contradictions, encouraging students to invest in their own human capital on differently priced undergraduate courses. It’s no accident that the announcement of a review coincides with a UCU strike over pensions, which may extend into the exam period – while possible plans to reduce fees for ‘less expensive’ social science and humanities courses tap into legitimate student concern about having to pay £9250 fees plus maintenance for just a few hours of lectures/tutorials. There’ll also probably be moves to compress some courses into 2 years and into ‘cheaper’ FE.

The ball is now with Labour. The commitment to abolish tuition fees is without doubt one of its most significant commitments and the most important of its education policies. But funding this will require fiscal policies that go way beyond only borrowing for investment and much steeper income taxes for the better paid than those the Party currently proposes. The review period is an opportunity for reformers to advance alternative models of tertiary provision that build on primary and secondary general compulsory schooling with an entitlement to lifelong continuing adult further and higher education and training. Concomitantly, the rights of young people need to be advanced beyond simply defending the post-war model.

A National Education Service would thus be more than a National Schools Service that aims only to bring academies, free and perhaps private schools within local democratic authority. If it is not to be a mere rebadging of existing provision, a NES worthy of the name would establish specialised tertiary level learning in colleges and universities linked to research with provision both in and out of employment. This would be a clear successor to primary and secondary general education.

                                            Martin Allen & Patrick Ainley

Apprenticeships: the demise continues

The latest official figures on quarterly apprenticeship starts (August to October 2017) may be disappointing reading for government, in view of David Cameron’s 2016 General Election promise to create an additional three million by  2020, but as posts on this site have emphasized, apprenticeships have never benefited many young people, never provided an alternative pathway to university and haven’t really been wanted by the majority of employers – who  have continued to oppose a compulsory levy on larger companies.

But as the research Another great training robbery has argued, rather than just reflecting shortcomings in the way they have been designed or funded, the main drawbacks with apprenticeships are consequence of longer term structural and historical difficulties in the British economy and the political consensus that has supported it. Without understanding this,  it’s of limited value  comparing the failure of UK apprenticeships  with ‘successful’ German ones and it’s certainly not acceptable to blame schools and colleges for not promoting them properly.

The figures show a huge fall in the number of starts compared with the period last year (down to 114,000 from 156,000, August to October has always been the busiest period for starts) but this has been particularly significant for Intermediate apprenticeships (a 40% fall) a level only equivalent to GCSE and generally lasting only one year, without further employment guarantees. There’s also been a big decrease in the number of adults being enrolled on apprenticeships – in most cases, these have been existing employees, reclassified as apprentices so employers can qualify for funding.

The over-representation of  existing employees and the disproportionate number  of Intermediate apprenticeships  (enrollments  on Advanced level schemes show less of a decline, while there’s been a significant increase at Higher level – even if these types of apprenticeships still make up a very small proportion)  has  been regarded as  a serious weakness by almost all critics of apprenticeships and something governments have not been able to reverse.

The continued demise of apprenticeships  is likely to mean that policy makers will now focus on the new Tech-levels being unveiled from 2019 and designed to be delivered full-time in further education colleges. Yet there’s little to suggest that these will be any more successful in providing proper employment opportunities for those young people not wishing or not able to spend three years at university.


The unemployed, the economically inactive and the NEETs

Figures released today by the ONS show youth unemployment (16-24-year olds) down to 12.2%, still nearly three times the rate for the population generally, but close to the 2001 low of 11.6%. (Youth joblessness reached 22.5% in 2011.)

But in many respects, these figures are of limited use. For example, over a third of those recorded as unemployed are full-time students looking for part-time work  – the 3.8 million 16-24-year olds in the labour market also include 860 000 full-time students doing part-time work.

Figures for youth unemployment should not be confused with the number of NEETs (Those not in  education, employment  or training) however.  According to figures published towards the end of 2017, 790 000 16-24-year olds were recorded as being NEET, 11.1% of the entire age group. 

Yet only 38% of NEETs were unemployed, the remainder being ‘economically inactive’ meaning they were not looking or available for work. (About a third of female NEETs were recorded as having domestic/care responsibilities preventing them looking for work, but the number of men in this category was practically non-existent.)

If totals for the unemployed and economically inactive are combined however, then almost 1 in 4 of those not in full-time education would fall into this category. A more accurate assessment of youth joblessness.



Education and the digital age

Discussion continues about the employment itimplications of Artificial Intelligence and robotics. If there is an emerging consensus, then it’s that there will be continued automation of ‘routine’ work   –particularly clerical, administrative and secretarial jobs in offices/banks for example, but that  ‘non-routine’ and  ‘personalised’ jobs, that are more difficult and more expensive to automate will likely continue to expand.

All this has serious implications for schools, colleges and universities. In recent months, both the Institute of Directors and the CBI have produced material that calls for a rethink of the school curriculum, with more of an emphasis on ‘soft’ skills like team-working and on ‘thinking skills’ – like ‘learning how to learn’ for example. Although employer organisations also continue to emphasise the importance of STEM subjects and improving standards in literacy and numeracy.

With a changing labour market, employer representative are probably correct to say there should be a more ‘generic’ approach to learning (though it’s less clear however, if specialist vocational education, such as the new Tech-levels, due to be rolled out from 2019 should be prioritised – as people are likely to engage in a wide variety of employment practices and move across occupational sectors, during their working life). The IoD has criticised the emphasis still placed on the transmission of subject knowledge, although stopped short of directly criticising the Ebacc, while the CBI has argued employers value positive attitudes and ‘resilience’ above formal academic qualifications. Compared with the high stakes testing culture that turns schools into ‘exam factories’ many teachers would also welcome this approach.

But employer organisations, governments and some educationalists paint a very rosy picture of the 21st century labour market however – as many of the new jobs are as likely to be low-paid service jobs, as they are highly paid professional and managerial roles. While its certainly true that more jobs will require ‘digital’ skills, this doesn’t necessarily mean that those doing them will need to be graduates in computer science, or even proficient in programming or coding. Thus, the Parliamentary Science and Technology sub-committee 2016/17 report, correctly highlighting the dangers of digital illiteracy, noted that 90% of new jobs would require digital skills ‘to some degree’.  In otherwords, rather than a plethora of well-paid jobs at the top, the labour market will continue to polarise or become ‘pear shaped’ – as a small technical elite breaks away from the rest. Even now, many employers report that the young people they recruit are more than competent for the work they do and in many cases, may be overqualified.

It’s also the case that while employer representatives criticise the over-emphasis on academic learning, academic qualifications awarded by top ‘elite’ universities will continue to have buying power for those who obtain them. In the eyes of many individual employers, Classics from Oxbridge will probably always suffice over Business Studies from a post 1994 university and many large employers admit to only recruiting from leading Russell universities. This shows that it’s the status of qualifications and institutions rather than the content of courses that continues to be most important.

As the number of higher paid jobs fails to keep up with the number of those ‘qualified’ to be able to do them, competition to secure prestigious qualifications and gain entry to prestigious institutions can only become more intense. But rather than leaving it to employers, education reformers and teacher unions should set their own agenda which, rather than merely emphasising the importance of new work skills, sets out the reasons for providing a good 21st century ‘general education’ for everybody as part of a new lifelong learning. 


Apprenticeship troubles continue

It’s nine months since the introduction of an employer’s levy – designed to raise an additional £3 million for the apprenticeships programme and help government reach its total of 3 million more apprenticeship starts by 2020.

But the apprenticeship levy only applies to large employers with a wage bill of more than £3 million (approximately 2% of all employers) who are required to pay 0.5% of this. This money will be paid into an account and can only be spent on approved apprenticeship training – with the government adding 10%.

Research from the influential CIPD shows that while these employers are more likely to offer apprenticeships than their smaller counterparts, almost 1 in 4 still plan to ‘write off’ this expenditure as a tax. According to CIPD levy payers are also likely to spend some the funds the on ‘rebadging’ existing employees as apprentices – a major problem with the old system of apprenticeship finance.

The CIPD report also shows that rather than being required to spend funds on apprenticeships, many levy paying employers would rather pay a more general ‘training levy’ –  training levies exist in other European countries and still exist in some UK economic sectors like building and construction.

Non-levy paying employers must pay at least 10% of the cost of apprenticeships and organise their own training (though all employers receive extra funds for employing a 16-18-year-old) and it’s the lack of take up by smaller employers that may well mean the government’s 3 million target isn’t met. For this to happen, the number of starts will have to significantly increase – but figures for 2016/17 show a fall on previous years and worryingly the period May to June 2017 saw a 60% reduction (this period coincided with the introduction of the levy!)

Most apprenticeships, despite new standards designed to improve quality (20% of training must now be ‘off the job’) are also still more likely to be offered at Level 2 (GCSE) without clear routes of progression and there are very few at Higher Level. Just a quarter of all starts are by under 19-year olds.