Election discussion about the economy, employment, and skills, largely avoided any reference to the debate about automation and its consequences for work. Even if it’s accepted that technological progress will eliminate jobs (though there are major differences of opinion about how many) it’s also generally argued that low-paid unskilled work will be replaced by new, more rewarding types of employment and that people should continue to be up-skilled to take advantage of these.
It’s certainly the case that previous periods of technological upheaval have not resulted in prolonged periods of mass unemployment, yet there has been a stream of accounts – admittedly mostly from the more liberal fringes of Silicon Valley – about the future implications of robotics and artificial intelligence for social cohesion, rising social inequality and much higher levels of unemployment.
The Queen’s speech reaffirmed government priorities “My ministers will work to ensure people have the skills they need for the high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future” but Labour has also continued to have an equally optimistic view –albeit emphasising the importance of reviving investment levels and replacing free-market forces with much greater degrees of state planning, better infrastructure, improved technical education and free university attendance.
Thirty-five years since Andre Gorz’s essay on the potential benefits of automation in the creation of ‘post-industrial’ socialism, which prioritises self-autonomous leisure rather than imposed work, Labour’s policies (whatever their other merits) continue to be based around the importance of full (time) employment, with the ‘bad’ jobs of the Tories being replaced by Labour’s better ones. In a week that sees the publication of Matthew Taylor’s report on employment practices, Gorz, still vilified by most of the traditional left, is at least worth revisiting.
David Willetts jumped before he was pushed by resigning from the Cabinet along with Michael Gove who was dismissed in Cameron’s cosmetic reshuffle. They won’t be back – Willetts hopes for a job in Europe while Gove may be editing the Daily Mail after May.
Together Willetts and Gove attempted a Great Reversal in English education. Gove by inflicting a grammar school curriculum on all schools so that fewer would be selected for higher education and Willetts by introducing exorbitant student fees that he thought would deter all but a few from applying to university and thus reduce government costs. Instead of less though, more school leavers applied in hopes of a secure job on graduation; especially when, as Martin Allen has shown, most of the ‘apprenticeships’ the Coalition promised did not provide an alternative route to this goal. Willetts, as much more of a free-market fundamentalist than Gove, accepted the Will of the Market and promised instead to sell the growing mountain of student debt owed by nearly half of all young people.
Despite his failure to do this, Willetts – unlike Gove – is deferred to by many academics and most journalists as a ‘two brains’ genius. But he has lost what Andrew McGettigan called his Great University Gamble, adding £191 billion in student loans to government debt. BIS estimate only a third of this will be repaid by 2046, after which unpaid loans will be written off. Consequently, the Treasury have repeatedly tried to get rid of Willetts but he promised he would sell the debt on – only no one wanted to buy. His boss at BIS Vince Cable admitted as much as soon as Willetts was reshuffled.
Now Willetts has popped up to defend himself, claiming on BBC’s Newsnight (28/7) to have been working on a scheme to sell the debt to the universities themselves. This will not go down well with the private colleges and ‘universities’ he’s been so keen to stimulate but some of the richer unis (guess which?) might be interested as they see a profit in this, particularly as Willetts is suggesting that this new reform will tie student subject choice more closely to job prospects on graduation. But however ‘employable’ unis claim to make their graduates, this aspect of student as consumer is narrowing student choice and perverting relations between students and staff because, basically, UNIVERSITIES HAVE NO CONTROL OVER THE GRADUATE JOBS MARKET.
So the proposal will lose the support of many academics who have been complicit in Willetts’ fee hike on which their own funding now depends (except for the still Higher Education Funding Council-funded Science Technology Engineering and Maths STEM subjects). With clearing upon us, nearly all the unis are in cut-throat competition to cram in students who are paying much more for less. In fact, all but Oxbridge and LSE went into clearing last year for at least one of their subjects. And these are amongst the few unis who will benefit from taking on their own graduates’ debts since they might make a profit from the higher paying jobs some of them get. So much so, they could charge even higher fees!
Yet, as Newsnight’s Chris Cook points out, under this regime, ‘Even a strong university like Leeds would go from having debt equivalent to about 38% of its current annual income to well over 100% within three years.’ He also adds that there would be even stronger incentives to grade inflation since ‘Unemployment among people with first-class degrees just out of universities was 5% in 2012/13, as opposed to 7.2% for people with upper-seconds.’
And what of unis where many students are unemployed or in low-paid jobs after graduation? Would government just let them go to the wall, achieving Willetts-Gove’s aim of reducing the numbers in higher education? And is Labour’s policy still to reduce fees from £9,000 to £6,000 and/or will they reinvent Foundation degrees in the form of ‘technical degrees’ leading on from a 14+ ‘technical route’ in schools, like Kenneth Baker’s University Technical Colleges, going back to bi- or tripartite schooling in place of Gove’s delusions in ‘grammar schools for all’?
Certainly, if the Tories get back in the cap of £9,000 as the top fee allowed will be removed but meanwhile this last desperate proposal won’t get David Willetts out of the hole he dug for himself.
Allen, M. (2014) Another Great Training Robbery or a Real Alternative for Young People? Apprenticeships at the start of the 21st century. London: radicaled. (Free download from this site.)
Allen, M. and Ainley, P. (2013) The Great Reversal, Young People, Education and Employment in a Declining Economy. http://www.radicaledbks.com
McGettigan, A. (2013) The Great University Gamble, Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education. London: Verso.
Many of Labour’s education policy announcements are either clouded by vagueness or appear poorly thought through. No more so than with the recent proposals for Technical Degrees. (http://press.labour.org.uk/post/91140989789/ed-miliband-speech-to-the-sutton-trust) For example, David Miliband is accused by Professor Alison Wolf of both undermining the importance of Higher Level Apprenticeships and creating confusion over the status of the existing Foundation Degrees; while Coalition Skills Minister Mathew Hancock also claimed that Miliband was in a ‘bit of a muddle’ (http://feweek.co.uk/2014/07/08/academic-sends-miliband-back-to-classroom-over-confusing-technical-degree-plan/). While there may well be confusion over the specifics of particular reforms however, more significant are the wider illusions on which the policy announcements are based.
Firstly, Labour sees the major divide being between the ‘graduates’ and the ‘forgotten 50%’. Though being re-established as One Nation Labour, these ideas are a continuation of the ideas of New Labour where the aim was to get as many people into higher education as possible so as to increase social mobility. But the increase in the number of graduates under New Labour only created a situation where more were ‘overqualified and underemployed’ –one survey now suggesting that just 53% of university leavers will gain ‘graduate jobs’ in the next five years. (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/jun/26/student-unrealistic-job-expectations) Emphasising a graduate /non-graduate divide also ignores the different labour market returns from different sorts of degrees awarded by different sorts of institutions.
Secondly, Labour cites a ‘skills crisis’ as the justification for training more technician level workers, but projects like the high speed rail line or the growth (often overestimated) of employment in new ICT based ‘cutting edge’ industries are not going to compensate for the long term decline in manufacturing employment (already less than 12% of total employment even if manufacturing output remains the same as 25 years ago) or ‘the ‘hollowing out’ of intermediate level employment (https://radicaled.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/the-hour-glass-economy/) . As is the case with Advanced Level Apprenticeships, rather than having to sponsor existing employees through Technical Degrees as Miliband proposes; the glut of graduates means employers can draw upon those already qualified.
Once again, Labour is only proposing superficial reforms to the ‘supply side ’ of the labour market rather than confronting the major inadequacies that young people face in trying to enter employment and which requires linking its education and training policies to a more general industrial strategy and an alternative economic plan.
‘Robbins Remembered and Dismembered, Contextualizing the anniversary’ in Higher Education Quarterly Vol 68, Issue 2, pp.225-240 published online 28 Mar 2014.
‘With students everywhere complaining they are paying too much for too little, why do they keep applying? Prof Patrick Ainley decided to find out…’ (p.9) Latitude Lookout February 2014 Latitude Lookout February 2014 The February 2014 issue of Latitude Lookout, the Students’ Union University of Greenwich’s official student magazine.
‘Young people who succeed in education today find ascent difficult because most mobility is downwards’
Patrick Ainley argues that widening participation has not led to fair and equal access to higher education
or outcomes in the labour market as systemic inequalities have deepened between institutions and subjects. System-wide
reform is therefore necessary as well as larger societal change.
Download LSE Robbins
Paper to Student Experience Network Sheffield Hallam 17/05/13
This paper begins by asking what is ‘higher’ about the education we claim to be giving our students and goes on to briefly examine alternatives to the traditional academic answer to this question, drawing upon the polytechnic tradition to suggest combining higher with further education and upon the precedent of Independent Study to argue that elements of IS in all undergraduate programmes afford a means for students to make sense of their study and for staff to relate to them in a process of continuing dialogue.