Micro-level policy is sometimes the hardest to get right

Our education system still funnels people towards universities.

It's rare you come across a completely obvious policy prescription which ought to be implemented immediately and would be unlikely to be opposed by anyone of any political bent, but this from Tyler Cowen is one:

College students even get discounts at the movie theater; when was the last time you saw a discount for an electrical apprentice?

Of course, nothing perfect remains so for long, and the problem here is that student discounts are a thing of civil society, not government policy. Companies decide whether or not to offer them, and then decide what forms of evidence to accept as proof that a customer is a student; and most of the widely accepted student cards, like NUS and ISIC, aren't state-backed.

(The government might have more lobbying ability to get apprenticeship co-ordinators to issue "student" cards, but no guarantee that those cards would be accepted).

But the wider point is worth bearing in mind: the structure of our education system is still built around a 3-year full time undergraduate degree immediately, or shortly after, leaving school, and that's true for little things as much as it is for the general structure of society. If you're an apprentice, it's harder to get subsidised loans to pay for your education; it's harder to get subsidised accommodation if your apprenticeship is away from home; there are fewer companies aiming entry-level positions explicitly at you; there's no co-ordinated national entry scheme; and so on. It's not quite a case of "look after the pennies and the pounds will watch themselves" – fixing all of those things wouldn't solve anything if there wasn't also an effective nationwide apprenticeship policy backing them up – but it certainly underpins quite how hard it is to turn around the ship of state.

An apprentice blows glass in Germany. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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