In our latest guest blog, Professor Ewart Keep, Director of Oxford University’s Centre on Skills, Knowledge & Organisational Performance discusses the key points from his latest UKCES Masterclass on the future of vocational education and training.
Post-19 vocational education and training (VET) is a foggy old issue, but certainly a pertinent one. It’s also one to which clarity has not been brought by an undulating policy landscape. The first step to clearing the clouds then is identifying the problems – something I aimed to do at the latest UKCES Masterclass session, asking ‘Where next for post-19 VET?’.
There is now a (largely-unacknowledged) underlying crisis regarding concerning the basic aims and function of skills policy at government level in England. Over the last 30 years or so, the implicit assumption developed that policy's function was to deliver 'world class skills' as measured by various international benchmarking exercises, such as the OECD's PISA and PIAAC surveys, and the Leitch Review of Skills' league tables of qualification stocks.
The aim was to move our position up the league tables. It was believed that this would automatically deliver productivity gains, support growth, and, if the boost in the supply of skills was large enough, catalyse demand for skills from employers through what the Treasury once termed a 'supply-push' effect.
This model was based on the argument that if the supply of skills expanded fast and far enough, employers would react to the enhanced capabilities of their upskilled workforce by shifting their product market strategies upmarket, thereby boosting their long-term demand for skills. This thinking underlay schemes such as Train to Gain.
I believe this model is now dying on its feet, for two reasons. First, it is clear from research that the linkages between skills and innovation, growth and productivity are far less direct and far more conditional than policy has tended to assume. As UKCES and many others have pointed out, more skills, on its own, does not always and automatically lead to improved performance, it can simply result in greater over-qualification. Organisations need to be able to absorb and deploy a more skilled workforce, and this is not always what happens. Unless and until skills policy is more closely integrated with business improvement and economic development, much of the investment will be wasted.
Second, traditional skills policy was fuelled by public money that supported expansion of the supply of FE and HE. With ongoing austerity and budget deficit reduction the new backdrop, the prospects for yet another supply side push, particularly in FE, look unlikely.. One of the potential side-effects of existing and potential cuts to the post-19 skills budget is that England's position in the various OECD league tables deteriorates rather than improves.
What then is the aim and function of skills policy if a supply-push effect and better performance in the international league tables are no longer easily achieved? To date, there has been very little discussion in England about what skills policy is now for, and how it aims to achieve whatever that is. Public debate and discussion is urgently needed.
One possible answer is that policy, particularly at national level, becomes about designing and regulating a market for skills. BIS and DfE, in Rigour and Responsiveness in Skills (2013: 32) suggested that increasingly the state's role should be, "to support employers and individuals as purchasers of skill, rather than as a direct funder itself". This is a very different model from that which has gone before, and demands both new skills from policy makers, and also a willingness to step back, reduce 'reform' and intervention (unless strictly necessary), let the market get on with its work, and learn to live with the outcomes, which may not always be what policy makers expect or want.
This is a big ask. Letting go of 'looking good' in the OECD's annual Education at a Glance publication is liable to prove hard for many policy makers schooled in the old model. As is refraining from yet another round of tinkering with institutions, programmes, inspection regimes, and qualifications.
Under the old model of skills policy, government was the dominant partner. It decided, usually unilaterally, the form and direction of policy. Under the new dispensation, whether consciously or not, employers and individuals will be making the running on many issues, because they will now be the ones that are paying. Learning to develop policy in partnership with other stakeholders is going to be a necessary adjustment in national policy making, which suggests that bodies like UKCES- that represent wider stakeholders in the skills system - have a valuable role to play in helping policy make the transition from old model to new.
Building durable institutional arrangements that allow employers to act collectively is also liable to be vital. One of the problems with current developments is the stress being placed on one-off informal coalitions of employers via various pilots and trailblazers. Important those these are, collective mechanisms that can engage with and represent the broad mass of employers, rather than simply an enthusiastic sub-set, are going to be vital, not least in terms of making co-investment strategies (for example on apprenticeship) work.
Policy makers face some fundamental issues about what policy exists to deliver, and how policy itself is best formulated and enacted. The past is unlikely to be a particularly helpful guide to the future into which we are now heading. Some hard thinking and some radical re-design is needed.
The UKCES Masterclass sessions are run in partnership with the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES). Each session is hosted by a guest speaker - a specialist in their chosen field - and offers an in depth discussion on the latest research, ideas and talking points on a particular topic
This post gives the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of UKCES or Commissioners.