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. 



Education without jobs

Today’s  ONS Labour Market Bulletin, provides further  data about the changing  relationship between young people, education and employment.  Even if it’s still much higher than for other age groups, youth unemployment continues to fall.  For July to September 2017, joblessness  for 16 to 24 year olds was 11.9% ( down from  13.1%  a year earlier and close to the lowest ever recorded).  The data also shows that over a third of those classified as unemployed are full-time students looking for part time work.

There’s  been a  42 000  increase in the number of young people dropping out of the labour market in the last 3 months – but the number in  full-time education has increased by another 20 000, a continuation of a long term trend.  Between March to May 1992 and July to September 2017 the proportion of people aged from 16 to 24 who were in full-time education increased substantially from 26.2% to 44.3%. Since 2007, numbers of  18-24 year olds in full-time learning have gone up from 27% to 33%.  Though there has been a 270 000 increase in the size of the total labour force in the last 12 months – employment among 18-24 year olds (including students) has fallen.

An increase in the number of young people in FT education is generally considered to be a good thing, representing an increase in the nation’s stock of ‘human capital’:  but it’s also a reflection of how many traditional employment opportunities  have disappeared and how apprenticeships have not provided a satisfactory alternative.  A more ‘highly qualified’ society doesn’t always lead to a more productive one.

T-levels get the go ahead


Chancellor Philip Hammond’s ‘Brexit budget’ has              confirmed the UK  government is to go ahead – and spend £500 million on the new ‘college based’ technical education pathway – now to be referred to as T-levels.  Based on proposals in last summer’s Sainsbury Review and the Cameron government’s Post-16 Plan, will it provide a major boost for the flagging FE sector and improve the quality and status of vocational learning?  As significant, will it help the employment prospects of those young people not continuing to university?

Since the late 1970s when in response to rising unemployment and the failure of ‘Youth Training’, 16 year olds started voting with their feet and remaining in full-time education, vocational education has grown and vocational qualifications continually redesigned, renamed and reconstituted – sometimes at huge expense (remember Labour’s 14-19 Specialist Diplomas?) 

But none of these initiatives have seriously challenged the dominance of academic education.  Neither has there been much evidence of vocational qualifications developing skills that employers really want or that they have  really been interested in them.  Alison Wolf branded many low level vocational certificates as ‘worthless’ in her 2011 Review and until now, it has been workplace based apprenticeships which have been promoted as the main alternative for young people not continuing to university.

The new T-level proposals however seek to establish a technical ‘middle’ pathway between academic education and apprenticeships, with one recognised set of qualifications spanning level 2 (GCSE standard) to degree equivalent, for 15 occupational areas that range from Agriculture, Environmental and Animal Care through to Transport and Logistics.

On the face of it, the injection of funds into an ailing FE sector would be most welcome, but the amount Hammond proposes will nowhere near compensate for years of cuts and the closing down of courses. The money will also be ring-fenced, only available for the new courses and, we must also assume, only going to those colleges that will be reclassified as ‘Institutes of Technology’. There is also little recognition of the fact that more young people prefer to remain in school sixth-forms or transfer to sixth-form college, rather than go into FE.

 As for content of the proposed courses, we don’t know whether to expect a complete ‘rewrite’ or whether existing qualifications will be used. With the new pathway coming into effect from 2019 there isn’t much time for new qualifications to be designed and besides, vocational qualifications have already been streamlined to be included in the government’s current definition of Tech-Levels.  Neither do we know how employers will be involved, although there will be extended periods of compulsory work experience.

Responsibility for monitoring the new qualifications will reside with the newly established ‘Institute for Apprenticeships’ with government arguing this will enable the college and work- based routes to be closely linked. In fact, some of the 15 areas, ‘Protective Services’ for example, which includes a range of occupations from police and fire service staff to ‘maritime operations officers’ (coastguards) will only be accessible through apprenticeships.

Yet full-time college based study is very different to following an apprenticeship and on the contrary, it could be argued that the technical route has been reinvented because of both the shortage of opportunities for young people (total applicants still outnumber vacancies by 10-1 and only 25% of starts are by under 19 year olds) and the level at which most apprenticeships commence (60% being still at Intermediate/GCSE level)

If there remain issues about the immediate future of the new qualifications, there are also longer term uncertainties.  These essentially relate to the degree of correspondence between the proposed qualifications pathways and the actual workings of the labour market. In the Skills Plan, the importance of each of the 15  sectors is only expressed through the number of people employed in it, there’s no analysis of the general skill levels, specific skills shortages, the relative significance of some occupations rather than others. This reflects the fact that the UK labour market, compared to countries like Germany for example -which has continued to run successful technical pathways linked to apprenticeships and is often seen as an example of the way forward for the UK is largely unregulated – is not linked to anything that resembles an ‘Industrial Strategy’. 

The success of German vocational training is not simply due to better quality or its higher status, more so the continuation of a ‘social partnership’ between employers, government and trade unions ensuring that training and skills policy is related to actual employment needs. It remains to be seen whether, without any definite assurances of employment, significant numbers of young people will sign up for T-levels rather than continuing the academic track.

But there are also more fundamental issues. Even if the German approach has slowed down the decline of its manufacturing sector, the major changes to work and the occupational structure – particularly the collapse of many ‘middle jobs’ that are predicted because of increased automation cannot be ignored.  It’s also argued that as new digital jobs continue to replace traditional ones, everybody will require much greater generic rather than specific technical skills.


More on the Skills Plan

The DfE and BIS published the long awaited post-16_skills_plan  in the summer of 2016. Based on recommendations from the Sainsbury Review, its main proposal was a new ‘technical route’ with qualifications available from Level 3 and above and with parallel status to the academic pathway. Now included in Theresa May’s industrial-strategy                                             

New technical qualifications are proposed in 15 occupational areas. The new programmes will, it’s argued have ‘genuine labour market value’; be available from 2019, designed by panels of employers and other representatives from industrial sectors. Each programme will include a ‘common core’ including English and maths requirements and digital skills as well as ‘transferable skills’. They will also include work placements.

We should welcome all attempts to improve education and training opportunities for a generation of young people facing increasingly insecure and uncertain employment prospects and recognise that not everybody may want to continue with specialised academic study post-16: nevertheless, its shortcomings can be identified below. 

To begin with, this has all been tried before. Labour introduced (post-14) Specialist Diplomas for different occupational areas in 2008 – also designed by employers – but with a low take up they were abolished by Michael Gore within hours of his coming to office. It could certainly be argued that delaying choices till 16 is a much better outcome, a key recommendation of the Wolf Review.

Schools have been excluded. Young people wishing to follow one of the new routes need to transfer to local colleges, which, it must be assumed, will now be organised through new Institutes of Technology announced by May.   Many schools will be reluctant to lose large numbers of sixth form students as there will be serious financial implications. Improved relationship between schools and colleges will be required. Alternatively, schools will continue to offer the Applied awards -like those for Business Studies, Health & Social Care and Information Technology, which do not currently count towards Tech Level qualifications.  Applied qualifications attract approaching 100 000 students every year.

Though May has promised to inject £170 million, many of the further education colleges that are expected to deliver the new technical qualifications will remain under huge financial pressures. The current area reviews of post-16 education may reduce opportunities for technical and vocational learning still further as colleges are closed or merged.  Private providers are also likely to expand.

In recent years, Post-16 students have continued to use vocational and technical qualifications for university entry, but they have often mixed these with academic courses. The new proposals, despite a promise of ‘bridges’ between the two pathways will largely put an end to this practice.  Meanwhile academic education remains unchanged and there are no plans for future reform.

The new technical route will be linked to employment based apprenticeship   training, but the government has not been able to deliver real apprenticeship opportunities for those under 19.  Most remain at Level 2 (GCSE equivalent) and are started by adults/existing employees. It won’t be possible to transfer from the technical to the apprenticeship route as the Plan implies. Beginning an apprenticeship is dependent on having a full-time job.

Many studies of the labour market also suggest that ‘middle’ and ‘technician’ level jobs are disappearing because of technological changes and automation.  Many studies of the labour market also suggest that ‘middle’ and ‘technician’ level jobs are disappearing because of technological changes and automation.  While there is a need for young people to have better generic and transferable skills, it isn’t clear if the specific occupational skills the government says there is a shortage of will continue to be required.  Wouldn’t it be better for everybody to enjoy a good general education and then have access to specific job training, if and when required?

Arguably the Plan is less to do with developing employment skills and is more about  trying to stem the number of young people going on to higher education as a result of the absence of  proper alternatives, but ending up ‘overqualified and underemployed’


A new technical route?

Technical and vocation education would appear to be one of the main thbeneficiaries 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_plan one 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 infamous 14-19-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.

Education’s ‘Great Reversal’

They used to  focus  on skills shortages, but now more labour market commentaries are emphasising the under- utilisation of skills and qualifications;  particularly in relation to the excess supply of graduates compared to the number of ‘graduate jobs’ available.  More recently still, concern has focussed on the extent of unpaid student debt  – the consequence of graduates not earning enough to hit the pay back threshold, with estimates suggesting that with many graduates  trapped in low-paid jobs, up to half it may never be repaid.  This is Alison Wolf’s starting point and the justification for the Remaking of Tertiary Education[i] in which the influential Wolf calls for a sub-degree pathway providing more cost effective opportunities for young people to enter employment.

As Wolf correctly recognises, qualifications like Higher National Diplomas have long since disappeared as polytechnics have become degree issuing universities. Her proposals tail the Department for Education’s Post-16 Skills Plan[ii] which also outlines a new college based ‘technical’ pathway between academic education and work based apprenticeship training.

The problem is that (as Wolf acknowledges) the nature of the occupational structure is changing.  The expanding middle of the post-war period which generated most of the new technical jobs has been replaced by an ‘hour-glass’ or has gone increasingly ‘pear shaped’   – as more work has been automated and those who would have been expected to end up in ‘the middle’ being pushed down into less skilled and less well paid employment, but also finding that where this sort of employment continues to be available, employers are able to recruit graduates.

This is the reason for mass enrolment in higher education.  Despite the high fees, which were supposed to ‘price’ large numbers  out of HE, young people continue to enrol because even though having a degree may earn you less than it used to, in most cases it still provides  a ‘premium’ compared to being without. Unless a sub-degree qualification –which would be completed in two years and charge lower fees  -or a technical route, offers guarantees of a job and with few opportunities to complete more than a low-level and dead-end apprenticeship, there  would seem to be little chance that large numbers would reconsider anything but a university route.

Progressives should not support these ‘alternatives’ they are part of a  Great Reversal of education policy.  Despite its contradictions and distortions, mass participation in higher education, just like the comprehensive education that’s driven it, is a positive development and something not considered possible even  thirty years ago.  Higher education needs to be reorganised to accommodate these developments. Rather than offering different types of education, for different types of young people FE colleges and universities should be part of  local networks  of post-16 provision available to all and not only offering a variety of courses but a variety of assessment methods and different time frames.


[i] Remaking Tertiary Education: can we create a system that is fair and fit for purpose?

[ii] Department for Education/ Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Post-16 Skills Plan

‘Twenty years of schoolin …’

Bob Dylan returned to media pages last week, with his Nobel Prize 2079650089_6202922e8c_ogenerating a flood of articles on the significance and influence of his music.

Dylan’s scathing one-line condemnation of the American school system in the 1965 Subterranean Homesick Blues may have been a little premature, but it’s now becoming increasingly accepted, that if not heading directly for the ‘day shift’, then many of those  who have completed approaching 20 years of full-time education are ending up in jobs for which they are hugely over qualified.

According to recent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) research

half of new graduates are occupying jobs that were once occupied by non-graduates. This is not because of the increased technical sophistication or that these jobs are becoming more demanding. On the contrary and after a study of 29 occupations the CIPD reports the widespread under-utilisation of graduate skills and capabilities – with graduates making up a third of new post-office, bank clerks and teaching assistants and 41% of new police officers (sergeant and below).

This research also helps to debunk what’s referred to as ‘human capital’ theory – the argument that because increased levels of qualifications, reflect increased levels of skills, they command additional labour market rewards for the holder. From a human capital perspective then, an increase in graduates would lead to both increases in output and productivity, something that has hardly been the case in the UK economy. 

Human capital theory also justifies the existence of a ‘graduate premium’ – the additional income graduates accrue, compared to non-graduates as being the result of their ‘marginal productivity’. But according to CIPD, though graduates, including  those holding non-graduate jobs continue to earn significantly more (though how much more also depends on where and what they have studied) rather than increased skills leading to increased financial returns this is because the graduatisation of the job market has pushed others down further   Rather than developing skills, qualifications are used to filter out certain types of applicants. Rather representing increases in potential productivity, qualifications are merely proxies matching different levels of qualifications to different jobs.

With university attendance increasingly expensive,  average student debts being £44 000, half of which won’t be paid off, CIPD concludes that an alternative vocational route into the labour market would be a better form of investment for many. But though there have been many attempts in the UK, alternative vocational pathways have never really taken off or generated proper opportunities (this is certainly the case with Higher Level apprenticeships) so there appears to be no likelihood of any effective challenge to the university route