Technical and vocation education would appear to be one of the main beneficiaries of Theresa May’s new ‘industrial strategy’. May has announced £170m of additional funding for institutes of technology (we assume this will involve an upgrading of existing FE provision on a regional basis)
While several high-tech sectors have been identified, the government will use the industrial strategy to relaunch the post-16_skills_planone of the last policy statements produced by David Cameron’s administration which sets out 15 new routes into high skilled employment, enabling those young people not going to university to gain a technical qualification at level 3 and above.
Though this will sound an attractive opportunity for many who work in the UK’s ailing and underfunded college sector, it isn’t clear whether it will help employment opportunities for the 50 % of young people who don’t go on to HE – neither is it a particularly new idea (remember New Labour’s infamous14-19-specialist-diplomas, which were axed by Michael Gove during his first week as education minister?)
In the past, there may have been some truth in the argument that Britain had fallen behind other countries in terms of the level of ‘intermediate’ skills held by its workforce and many commentators continue to see the German system of vocational education and apprenticeships as the way forward. But it’s now increasingly recognised that many skilled and ‘technician’ level jobs across the economy are disappearing because of further automation and digitisation and that where they do continue to exist, they are likely to be filled by graduates who find themselves ‘overqualified and underemployed’.
So, it’s unclear whether ‘vocational alternatives’ are really needed, or whether young people should be encouraged to develop more generic/general skills to enable them to move across different economic sectors and to be able to take up very different types of employment during their working lives. But, in any case it’s also very possible that there won’t be enough highly skilled jobs for everybody qualified to do them and that (as is the case now) it will be unskilled work at the lower end of the service sector that will continue to increase.
In other words, it’s likely that its growing inequalities, rather than lack of skills that will be the main problem in labour markets of the future and thus governments will need alternative strategies to address these.