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29 September 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:58am

Why Boris Johnson’s offer of free college is not as generous as it looks

This government makes a habit of announcing money it's already spent on policies it was already planning.

By Ailbhe Rea

Boris Johnson will deliver a major speech this morning, announcing a series of new policies designed to revamp the skills and retraining opportunities available to adults, in preparation for the huge economic changes expected in the wake of coronavirus.

The Prime Minister’s “lifetime skills guarantee” is understood to contain three new measures: adults in England without A-levels or an equivalent level qualification are to be offered a free college course; higher education loans are to be made more flexible; and “skills boot camp” trials, in which employers offer training in certain areas, are to be expanded, along with more funding for apprenticeships.

We have been here before. On 30 June, the Prime Minister went to the West Midlands, stood at a podium emblazoned with the words “Build build build”, and announced a “New Deal for Britain”, promising a “positively Rooseveltian” £5bn of capital investment projects to upgrade infrastructure, create jobs and spur on the UK’s economic recovery.

It was not clear then, nor would it become clear until a week later – following extensive research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies – that the “New Deal” Johnson announced represented precisely £0 of new money.

This is a government that set out a generous “levelling-up” budget before the pandemic hit, and has adopted the strategy in these times of crisis of re-announcing its pre-corona policies and pledges as though they were new spending. The “New Deal” announced in June was a mixture of rehashed, pre-existing pledges and funds that had simply been moved around. At least £8bn of the economic package announced by Rishi Sunak in his Summer Economic Update, a week after Boris Johnson’s speech, was to be funded by underspend on pre-existing projects. The “New Deal” capital investment package unveiled by Johnson was all a reallocation from other projects.

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No one objects to reallocating funds to where they are most needed in a time of economic and public health crisis. But it is quite remarkable that the head of the IFS had to publicly condemn the government’s lack of transparency on this. Many people still won’t know that many of those big announcements don’t represent any increase in public spending, and that is precisely the point: these big speeches are much more about giving the appearance of doing the right thing, of making reassuring noises, and reminding people of things the government was already sort-of planning or doing rather than making any substantial or meaningful changes.

The full detail of Johnson’s announcement on skills later will emerge only after the speech. But on the face of it, none of it looks to be new: the free college course offer looks to be a clarification of the National Skills Fund policy announced in March (and it won’t come into effect until April next year, which will mean a long wait for those who lose their jobs this winter), while an increase in funding for apprenticeships was included in Sunak’s statement in July. The only policy that looks to be new is the extension of “skills boot camps”, which could well be financed, yet again, by making savings in other areas rather than through any new investment.

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Everyone is in agreement that the economic crisis already under way necessitates a revolution in how we train, retrain and upskill employees in this country. Even before Covid-19, we knew that longer working lives and changes such as automation would likely mean that people will have to retrain multiple times during their lifetime. Today’s announcement will speak to a pre-existing, and now urgent, need to help employees transition from jobs that have been rendered obsolete into new, viable work. But it is not clear how much substance there will be behind these words. And if it’s anything like Boris Johnson’s last big speech on the economy, even the experts will need time to work that one out.