Local Government

The economic barriers to vocational education

  • Published: Sep 25, 2018
  • Author: Alan Sitkin
  • Category: Local Government

Part four – Local priorities for economic regeneration: an Enfield view

Alan Sitkin, Senior Lecturer, Regents University London

The previous blog identified the difficulties local authorities face when staging upskilling initiatives to remedy problems like unemployment and in-work poverty. During my four years as LB Enfield’s Cabinet Member for Economic Regeneration, I found that the economics of vocational training was much more complicated than is often understood.

A standard policy proposal is to leverage vocational training for non-white collar workers into improved life chances. How many times have you heard a well-intentioned person like myself advocate more technical learning for both non-academic kids (c.f. Germany’s Fachhochschule, or technical college, network) and seasoned industrial workers (c.f. Sweden’s life-long learning model)? The idea is nothing new – which doesn’t prevent it being regularly recycled.

When a seemingly obvious solution like this has not been implemented, it is because there are obstacles in the way. These need to be understood.

Progressives are right to lambaste Conservatives for accelerating the UK’s de-industrialisation. Tory disdain for blue collar professions makes parents feel they have failed if their son or daughter ends up working with their hands. My German wife is always gobsmacked by the lack of respect afforded to manual arts in the UK compared to her native land. Economic regeneration is not just hard business but human activity, full of subjectivity and judgement, the art in work.

There is also the mistake of allowing companies to avoid the cost of a factor input (qualified labour) that benefits them directly by shifting it onto society. Recent statistics show that only 30% of UK enterprises provide initial vocational training – compared to a whopping 60+% in Germany.

Some of the more far-sighted businesspeople I met as councillor agreed with this critique and were willing to again start paying to train new generations of workers. However, most business counterparts – especially ones representing smaller companies – were more worried about wasting money on training; either because the learner subsequently leaves for higher wages elsewhere, or because the volume of work for which people are being hired is not large enough to justify their training cost.

During my time at Enfield Council we devised policy innovations addressing these concerns – often by tying small local building sub-contractors into big companies’ supply chains. We would then get the latter to provide clarity about future business volumes - reassuring the local companies that it was again worth investing in bespoke vocational training.  

Despite this, most local subcontractors still thought they should only hire state-funded vocational training graduates. The question then became which institutions should provide the training. Employers’ expectation that FE colleges take responsibility for the provision was problematic given how reticent most parents are about taking their post-GCSE teenagers out mainstream secondary school 6th forms and sending them instead to FE colleges, with their very different learner populations.  

If school-based 6th forms ran vocational training, there is every chance that parents would be happier to enrol their children in this pathway. Yet that is unlikely to happen largely (and as always) for economic reasons. Vocational training is expensive to run and requires an enormous amount of equipment, space and specialist teachers. It is in the financial interest of secondary school heads – who are nowadays more or less completely independent of local authority control, another Tory mistake – to save on vocational training costs.  Especially given the incentives – in another sign of the pro-white collar bias “where the focus is entirely universities” – to admit as many learners as possible to 6th form and ultimately onto higher education.

So if secondary schools can’t be counted on to deliver vocational training – and because companies’ own on-site provisions are patchy at best – all that is left under the current systems are FE colleges. Bringing attention back to the (complicated) link that exists between the number of students that an FE college attracts and the amount of funding it gets.

In that sense, vocational training has turned into a business like any other, albeit run by a quasi-public body. Management is mainly about size: large capacities make it possible to accommodate peak demand but also costs a lot of money; small capacities save money but offer a lesser provision. In a cash-strapped environment, public institutions are bounced into a reduced capacity strategy. Everyone agrees that society benefits from more vocational training – but that doesn’t mean the parties charged with delivering it have the budget they need. Money, which has fallen steadily for this sector, is the ultimate bottleneck.

Which is actually a good conclusion here. For a policy as enormous as the regeneration of a large swathe of disadvantaged London, people (voters) must be prepared to pay or else nothing will happen.  And this argument will never be heard if parties seeking election do not undertake the daunting task of convincing society of the need for higher taxes to properly fund the public bodies delivering the outcomes everyone demands. Until our fiscal paradigm shifts, however, employability funding must be sought where it currently exists – in corporate coffers. The good news is that this is achievable. The next blog in this series will give an example of how it can be done.

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