Money worries

With Con-Lib austerity cuts looming, it's hard to know what the future holds for learning

Before the general election, searching the Conservative Party policy locker for anything on skills and training gave few clues to the direction the government would be taking to build the skills needed to take the UK out of recession.

Small wonder then, that when David Cameron, the prime minister, committed the government to supporting growth ­industries during a recent speech in Leeds, the sectors he mentioned - aerospace, pharmaceuticals, high-value manufacturing, hi-tech engineering, low-carbon technology and creative industries - were exactly the same as those singled out in the New Industries, New Jobs white paper, launched in April 2009 by Lord Mandelson and John Denham.

No change in emphasis, then, and no tinkering, either, with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS) which retained its broad brief ­created under the previous government.

A tighter focus

Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, is confident enough to describe his new portfolio as the "department for growth" ahead of the forthcoming departmental spending review. In his first major speech since taking office, at the very time that the Chancellor, George Osborne, was shaping an austerity Budget, Cable announced a 20 per cent increase in the number of apprenticeships awarded nationally each year, taking the total to 300,000. "It is shocking that we only have 250,000 ­apprenticeships to start with," he said.

The reallocation of £200m to further education and 50,000 extra apprenticeships laid down a marker for shifting expenditure and some inevitable dismantling within existing bodies. The funding was transferred from the last Labour government's Train to Gain scheme. The scheme had been looking vulnerable after the National Audit Office questioned its value for money.

But there seems little appetite in business or government for root-and-branch reform of skills training at a time when so many initiatives established ­during the past two governments are still bedding in.

The National Skills Academy attracted cross-party support; and while some sector academies may find themselves under pressure to increase business support, both business and government have put too much faith in the academies for either to pull out now. The private sector is contributing up to 50 per cent of their funding with some companies choosing to run their own schemes.

Cable has already gone to war on what last year he called the "heaving nest of quangos". But the bulk of the skills sector has been spared so far.

When Cable announced that some 13 of the department's 74 quangos were to be axed, merged or have their funding reduced, only four dealt directly with training; and changes for some, such as the Institute for Learning, which must become self-funding by the spring of 2013, were already in the pipeline. But more DBIS quango cuts have been promised.

However much Cable says he is committed to education for its own sake, his department is unlikely to resist pressure within business for prioritising education and training around the so-called Stem agenda, focusing education-for-work poli­cies on the core subjects of ­science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

A survey published in May by the Confederation of British Industry and EDI, an accrediting body, pointed to increasing concerns in business over skills shortages in science disciplines. In spite of the recession nearly half of 694 employers questioned in the research were struggling to recruit such skills. Six out of ten companies expected to have difficulty finding Stem-skilled people in the next three years.

“The new government must make ­encouraging more young people to study science-related subjects a top priority," says Richard Lambert, director general of the Confederation of British Industry.

Demographic trends, which show that the number of young people entering the labour market in the next ten years is reducing, mean these problems will be exacerbated in a recovery. The UK will find that it cannot rely solely on youth for a growth in relevant skills.

Policies will be needed to promote women returning to the workforce and the reskilling and training of older people. For now, however, too little has been forthcoming to stimulate the older labour market.

For radical change in higher education, the government appears to be concentrating on universities. David Willetts, the minister responsible, has made it clear that universities will need to find £700m in savings, but is ­delaying specific measures until the Browne review of university funding reports in the autumn.

Willetts has suggested that universities will need to think more deeply about providing cheaper distance-learning options for students. This suggests that in future a university could become as much a brand in education as a bricks-and-mortar institution.

ducational branding enables universities to establish and cash in on global reputations, which could extend spheres of excellence and bring in much-needed foreign earnings without damaging educational provision for students in the UK.

Depth and flexibility

Public spending cuts across the EU are demonstrating that economies have become too interdependent to enable stand-alone recession-proofing. Globalisation has changed the game for economies that believed they could isolate themselves from international economic fluctuations.

Workplace, technological and broader demographic trends highlight a need in future for generic skills, equipping nations with adaptable populations capable of meeting new and unexpected demands.

But, at the same time, the education and skills sector must build a capacity for deep skilling, so that demands for flexibility are not interpreted as a charter for mediocrity. What price a German-style apprenticeship in this financial climate?

Business in the UK has been reluctant to copy the German model where, over many years, a craft apprenticeship goes through distinct phases to the highest status of meister, equivalent to a master's degree in the UK.

These are the challenges shaping Cable's new agenda. The toughest part of his job - even harder than his commitment to redesign growth for an age of ­austerity - will be to lay the foundations for a fairer society, defined by meritocracy rather than the privilege of birth or parental wealth.

His priorities, he says, are an increased emphasis on lifelong learning, stripping away bureaucracy in further education, and "making sure that the outdated value distinction between blue-collar apprenticeships and further education, on the one hand, and university, on the other, is disposed of for good".

That's an agenda Gordon Brown's government could have been proud of - and no wonder, since many of the skills and training policies that must remain in place are a legacy of Labour restructuring in the past ten years.

Richard Donkin writes for the Financial Times, and is author of "The History of Work" and "The Future of Work"

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.