In 1942, at the height of the second world war, the British government published a report prepared by the economist William Beveridge. Despite its somewhat austere title – Social Insurance and Allied Services – Beveridge’s report sold vast numbers of copies, and is widely regarded as having laid the foundations for the post-War Labour government’s establishment of a welfare state in the United Kingdom. Important and remarkable though the report was, what’s just as remarkable was the decision to publish it while the nation was engaged in an otherwise all-consuming conflict. It spoke to an underlying determination to build a better future. Eighty years later, many of Beveridge’s ideas remain (for all their many limitations) as the foundations of social welfare.
The nation is once again engaged in a long and debilitating struggle with profound social, economic and political implications. Last week, the government published a clutch of reports about the future of higher and further education. They included a White paper on further education, the government’s interim response to Philip Augar’s report on post-eighteen funding, Dame Shirley Pearce’s report on the future of the Teaching Excellence Framework and the government’s response to that. The government didn’t need to publish all of these together. The decision to do so suggests an attempt to articulate a collective statement about the future of post-18 education against a background of national crisis. I may be wrong, but I’d be surprised if this collection of reports has Beveridge’s longevity.
There is a lot in the reports, and excellent detailed analyses have been published, including by Wonkhe, FE Week and the TES. All these analyses share two points. The first is that the difficult issues which require significant funding changes have been (once again) delayed, at least until the Summer when the government plans a long-term spending review. The second is that these papers are not, really, to do with higher education but with the skills system, of which, of course, universities are a part. There is a long-standing problem here. The former Treasury Permanent Secretary Lord Macpherson told the House of Lords, “In the last 100 years, every government has noted that the skills system in this country is hopeless. They claim that they will do a radical reform of it. They rearrange the deckchairs, and skills remain precisely the same problem as they have always been. If the government were to do anything in this period, creating a skills system that really makes a difference would be truly revolutionary. Sadly, I am not holding my breath.”
The government’s frustrations about the skills system are captured in an early paragraph of its response to Augar, where it says “it is vital that education and training undertaken by our students benefits them and the labour market. Our aim is for everyone to do the training that is right for them, that will give them the best chance of securing employment and that will align with the needs of our economy”. Some academics deplore this approach to education, claiming that it is reductive and that education is about far more than labour markets. It is. However, I’ve always preferred the language of “and” to the language of “or”: education may not ‘just’ be about employment, but that does not mean that it isn’t at least in part about preparation for longer-term economic success. Even so, there is a problem in the government’s stated aims, and careful readers will already have spotted it. There is a shift, so rapid that you are not intended to notice it from “the labour market” to “the needs of our economy”. The two are similar but they aren’t the same. The labour market as it is now is not the labour market as it will be in ten, fifteen, twenty years’ time. The long-term needs of our economy, for highly-skilled, intellectually agile employees in a world where technologies will sweep away many jobs mean we need to think simultaneously about employment now and employment in the future.
To be fair, some of the government’s ideas pick up on this: there is a plan for a lifelong skills guarantee, though not funded until 2025. Elsewhere, there are lazy assumptions. The government asserts that “we need a better balance between academic and technical education – we are currently too skewed towards degrees above all else”. There are two schoolboy howlers there. First, the assumption that ‘academic’ and ‘technical’ education are different things, at opposite ends of a see-saw and, secondly the assumption that the UK output of graduates is out of line internationally – it’s not.
There are tough challenges to come. The Government’s apparent assumption that there needs to be a switch from higher to further education is limiting and unhelpful. It’s also at odds with the numbers. The real skills challenges in this country face those 18-year olds who don’t progress to extensive training, not the 40% who go to university. And further education has been shamefully neglected. We desperately need to strengthen sub-degree training, and to offer adults a route to re-skilling. But we need to do that because we desperately need to modernise the least effective and successful parts of our economy –if we don’t, we’ll trap people in low wage, low skill employment.
Sheffield Hallam is, I think, and not for the first time, ahead of government here. We’ve articulated our vision as an outstanding applied university providing strong routes to rewarding and challenging employment. We’ve embedded employability across all our work. We’ve developed our strategic relationship with The Sheffield College, alongside our work with other regional providers, to ensure clear routes through post-18 education. We’ve set out strategic principles for developing our work in higher technical qualifications. We’ve convened the country’s first post-18 education partnership with all the region’s universities and colleges. We believe in ‘and’ not ‘or’. We will pay careful attention to government’s challenges, but always putting learners and place first. It’s important – the lessons of Beveridge – to look beyond an immediate crisis, but to do so on the basis of ambitious principles.