‘Skills, Skills, Skills’ – Sunak’s £1.6 billion for the T’s.

To help tweak the  “skills revolution” Chancellor Sunak will provide £1.6 billion for 16-19 education.  Though much less than college bosses have called for, a large amount of this will be funding for  100,000 16- to 19-year-olds studying for T-levels, the new and controversial technical-based qualifications launched in three vocational areas in September 2020 at the height of the pandemic and due to be rolled out in many more by 2024.

The latest in a long line of vocational/technical qualifications the T’s have failed to attract any real support from post-16 practitioners. With only about 2000 students currently registered there’s no evidence either that individual employers back, or even know anything about them.  Colleges and some sixth forms have signed up largely because of the extra funding. Existing colleges in England are to be allocated £830 million with extra funding for new equipment and facilities. 

But the T’s are also controversial in the sense that the government  plans to withdraw funding for many existing vocational qualifications including the popular BTECs that can be combined with other courses of study,  therefore creating a binary system of  ‘A-levels or T’s’ at age 16.

Apprenticeship funding will increase by £170 million.  Pushed by David Cameron as the main  alternative to academic study, apprenticeship starts have  failed to hit their targets and slumped further as a result of the pandemic  – with a 20% fall  in the first 6 months of the 2020-21 academic year and an even larger reduction in those under 19.  (40% less than in 2018/19.)  With plenty of graduates around, employers don’t really need anymore apprentices.

Some 24,000 addition traineeships will also be created. Traineeships are ‘pre apprenticeship’ qualifications aimed at those considered to lack the  necessary basic skills. But there’s nothing new in the budget about the struggling ‘Kick-Start’ programme. Where again, take up is well below what was hoped.

Under pressure from Johnson,  red wall Tory MPs  and relying on over optimistic growth forecasts ( even if infection  rates remain high, consumer confidence faltering and Brexit taking its toll) Sunak might be spending more than he intended, yet this isn’t a budget for a ‘new’ post-Covid economy, only one designed to shore up the failed old.  

As a result, spending large amounts of money on new vocational qualifications won’t be anymore successful than it has been in the past. A real skills programme for young people, will only succeed if it is linked to  an alternative economic plan, in particular, a proper ‘Green Industrial Revolution’   financed by the sort of borrowing the Covid crisis has shown is both legitimate and possible, the redirection of savings in to public bonds and wealth taxes of one sort of another.

In the meantime,anxious to secure their prospects,  those young people that are able, will continue to pursue the academic pathway and jostle for places at higher status universities  because of the ‘currency’ they provide.

The Chancellor has yet to put forward proposals on tuition fees. While the 2019 Augar Review recommended they be reduced to £7500 (this would help the Treasury by reducing the amount of outstanding debt but would transfer the cost to universities), the more likely option is for the earnings threshold to be reduced to £23 000 (from the current  £ 27 000) designed to both reduce the debt but also make attending university less attractive.

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