Friday 18 December 2009

Investing in Skills

This week, I've had cause to read another of the Welsh Assembly Government's many consultation papers. This time it's "Investing in Skills", setting out how the government intends to prioritise spending and support.

Much of it, as with so many government papers, is motherhood and apple pie; but the section on targeting sector priorities raised some concerns in my mind. It was the sentence "The limited evidence available suggests that most learners make broadly rational choices of learning, given the wage returns to different qualifications." which first raised my eyebrows.

The meaning is not immediately clear; it's the sort of sentence which on a quick reading might not have registered at all; but what it actually seems to be suggesting is that 'rational' choices of learning are those which lead to the qualifications which in turn give the highest earnings power. The corollary of course is that choices not based on that criterion are irrational. This interpretation is confirmed by the helpful footnote referring to exceptions with the words, "health and beauty therapy courses are popular despite evidence of relatively low returns".

It underlines a very utilitarian approach to training; and indeed that theme runs through the document, with its proposals to effectively ring fence part of the spending allocation to FE institutions for those courses considered to be most immediately useful by the Sector Skills Councils. One consequence is that courses which are currently fully-funded but which are not in the priority categories may no longer be fully-funded in future; learners will be expected to contribute to the costs. The potential consequences, for learners, FE institutions, and the range of courses available are obvious.

Now there's nothing wrong with employers (and the SSCs are largely composed of employers' representatives) setting out their training needs, and there's nothing wrong with those training needs receiving a degree of priority. That could be seen as a means of promoting the needs of the Welsh economy. But there are two aspects which concern me.

The first is that employers, by and large (and there are always exceptions to every rule), tend to take a pretty short term view of training. That is, they're good at identifying, and often providing, training to meet their own narrow immediate needs; they're rather less good at identifying future needs, let alone the needs of replacement industries.

The second is the assumption that training only benefits the economy directly if it is immediately relevant to today's economic needs. A point which I picked up in a meeting I attended recently is that tomorrow's NEETs can often, sadly, be identified at the age of 5. There are some key factors which identify the likely future employment status of children when they are at the beginning of their primary school years – and one of those factors is the educational attainment of the parents.

We always need to be careful of the distinction between a causal relationship and a correlation; but there is strong evidence to suggest that low levels of educational attainment and training beget low levels of educational attainment and training. If we assume that a reduction in the number of NEETs is itself economically beneficial (quite apart from the obvious social advantages), then addressing the factors which are creating tomorrow's NEETs has a direct economic advantage.

In short, providing training and qualifications of any level, even if the immediate economic benefit of that training is not obvious, will help to improve the level of educational attainment of the next generation and therefore have a delayed economic benefit. A skills strategy which over-emphasises meeting today's needs, on the other hand, may be helping to perpetuate a deep-rooted problem. Joined-up government means taking a much wider view.


Spirit of BME said...

I love this . WAG asking what skills industry should have.Gawd help us. To become a AM you need no identifiable skill. You can sit on a Party list and wait to be elected ,then collect your fat pay packet.

dghughes82 said...

Interesting post. Here in Cardiff the university's department of lifelong learning (i.e. adult education) has cut back on a large proportion of its humanities courses; the courses that remain, for the most part, broadly fit into the category of those that are perceived to yield the most short term economic benefits - business and management, computing, foreign languages, some basic science modules. (Not that I'm suggesting that these subjects are unimportant!)

Given the amount of debt that the state is in, such cuts are probably inevitable; its also highly probable that must adult education providers would attempt to preserve their more business-relevant subjects in the circumstances.

However, policy makers should try and bear in mind that the provision of adult education has important social benefits; it offers an opportunity to open one's mind to new ideas and also to form new social networks. Unfortunately its quite difficult to quantify these things on a spreadsheet.

Basically, I think provision of adult education should be seen in a similar way to provision of sports & leisure facilities; their may be little immediate economic benefit, but their are great social benefits.