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"