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5 July

Labour forgets that not everyone goes to university

The party’s focus on tuition fees neglects half of young people – and its past success with apprenticeships.

By Richard Layard

Labour is choosing its pledges. On education the biggest issue is what happens after school. There has been much talk about Labour’s policy on tuition fees and their plans for university graduates. But in this country graduates do fairly well – we have some of the highest-ranking universities in the world. We often forget about those who don’t go to university, however. By 18, 30 per cent of all our young people are in no form of education or training. This is half as much again as in France or Germany. It is no wonder our wages are so much more unequal and our productivity so much lower than many of our peer countries.

For those qualified for university the way forward is clear. Thanks to the Robbins Committee’s decision sixty years ago, it is guaranteed that there are enough places to ensure that any qualified person who wants a place can find one. But the “Robbins Principle” has never been applied to “the other 50 per cent”. School leavers are offered no clear route along which they can expect to progress. There are too few apprenticeships for all who want them, while in further education beyond 18 provision is capped at as little as half of what it was in 2010. This, in turn, impacts how skilled young people are. Whereas at age 15 young people in the UK do as well on tests as they do in France and Germany, by age 24 they have lower literacy and lower numeracy. They are, quite simply, less educated.

The last Labour government understood this problem; it remembered the other 50 per cent. Its 2009 Apprenticeships Act put a legal obligation on the government to ensure there were enough apprenticeship places for every qualified young person who wanted one. However, this clause was soon repealed by the coalition government. We now have fewer apprenticeships starting in each year than when the coalition government took over. It was a disgraceful step back, and reform should be Labour’s top educational priority.

There are so many talented young people who want to earn as well as learn. So no surprise that expanded university entry hasn’t been accompanied by increased social mobility – we need a way of training and learning that doesn’t involve university. 

Of course, introducing guaranteed apprenticeships would be neither easy nor immediate – funding patterns have to change. But efforts should be concentrated on under 25s. Bizarrely, since the apprenticeship levy (effectively a tax placed on larger employers) became the main source of funding for apprenticeships in 2017, over half that funding has been directed to people over 25. Much of the apprenticeship levy has been diverted to a sort of continuing professional development. This distorts the concept of apprenticeships, which are supposed to get people off to a good start in life. And of course it is the under-25 age group that falls behind on skills and education. Over-25s, meanwhile, have more experience, and their further training could be financed by their employers as part of professional development.

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What about other forms of further education not linked to apprenticeships? This funding too should be demand-led, as in universities. Colleges have a crucial role to play in post-school education, for example preparing young people who do not already have the necessary qualifications for apprenticeships.

But, for a headline pledge, Labour should focus on apprenticeships – they are what people want, and what the economy needs. The present situation discriminates disgracefully in favour of the academic route. It is perhaps no wonder that we have such a divided country when such inequality persists between graduates and non-graduates.

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