A ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’ is fine – but what will students live on?

Let’s give a little credit where it’s due. The ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’,set out by the prime minister on 29 September, is aimed at the right target. It seeks to tackle two linked issues that threaten future prosperity: rising unemployment fuelled by the Covid crisis and the long running UK problem of low productivity.

But let’s also see it for what it is. It’s a step back from the failed policies of the past decade, which is welcome, but as an initiative it lacks the scale and ambition needed to tackle the current crisis. Government needs to retreat still further from the over-centralised and underfunded model it has imposed on our further education sector, a model that has led to the disastrous consequences that are now becoming fully appreciated.

Johnson was right when he said, “we have seen a haemorrhage, in the last 20 years, in adult education – a million fewer than there were.” What he didn’t admit was that this has been driven largely by government policy. Austerity budgets between 2009-2010 and 2018-2019 cut funding for classroom based adult education by 47 per cent; the number of students fell from 4.4 million in 2004–2005 to 1.5 million in 2017–2018; and the impact of cuts was compounded by a failed experiment in student loans.

Until 2013, courses for adults’ equivalent to A levels (level 3 in the jargon) were subsidised by the government. This arrangement was replaced by the introduction of Advanced Learner Loans, a system that, incredible as it seems, manages to be more expensive to the taxpayer but much less popular with students – a ‘lose-lose’ arrangement, unless the intention always was to depress demand. Put simply, if a course cost £100 the government used to pay the first £50. Now it will give a loan for the full £100 expecting that on average no more than £31 will be paid back. This is because loan repayments are based on income – which should make it a bargain for students entering low paid occupations, but the fear of debt and mistrust of the government undermine rational calculation. Recruitment on relevant courses fell sharply when loans were introduced.

For some students those who lack any qualification at level 3 – the government will, from April 2021, meet 100 per cent of the course cost. This is a welcome step but doesn’t go nearly far enough. For a start not every course will be eligible; Whitehall will be unable to resist imposing on students and colleges its own view of what the economy needs. Secondly it won’t start quickly enough – unless colleges can recruit whole classes of adult students in April, those made unemployed this winter risk having to wait until next September to join a viable group. Crucially, it won’t reach everyone who needs support to retrain.

Those who already have a qualification at level 3 will not benefit from the scheme as currently proposed. If a redundant 48-year-old picked up two A levels 30 years ago they would not be eligible for support. If a supervisor in a threatened sector, like retail or hospitality, has obtained an NVQ 3 relevant to their work there is no way that they will be supported, as Johnson suggests, to “ find a job in the wind farm sector in the north east, or in space technology in Newquay”. Welcome as it is, the scheme is too tightly circumscribed to seriously impact on either unemployment or skill shortages.

There is, however, an even more fundamental problem with these proposals.  What is an unemployed west country waitress expected to live on while retraining to work in a wind farm in the north east? How are those in industries devastated by the pandemic expected to support themselves and their families as they equip themselves to “find work in the burgeoning new sectors that this country is creating”? There was plenty of flowery language in Johnson’s speech but no mention of the bread and butter issue of maintenance support.

Rather than vague talk about ending the “pointless, snooty, and frankly vacuous distinction between the practical and the academic”, the prime minister would do better to focus on why a young adult is entitled to support with living expenses when studying at degree level, but not at level 3. He would do better to focus on how those families on Universal Credit are expected to pick up higher level skills when the Department for Work and Pensions will not normally allow full time study. A Lifetime Skills Guarantee is a fine thing, but if you can’t afford to live while studying it is an empty gesture.