What I have to say sits comfortably between the points that Francis Maude has already made on public service reform and what David Freud will say later about welfare.
Further and higher education are public services, quite as essential in their own way to maintaining our way of life as the NHS or the police force.
Like other parts of the public sector, the previous government borrowed and spent billions on post-compulsory education. But much of this was wasted. Spending has risen far quicker than performance. And all too often, extra money has been spent not on improving the quality of teaching and learning, but on driving the system from the centre.
This is not the fault of the sector or those who implemented public policy, it’s the fault of the politicians who pushed these policies through parliament.
That goes not only for universities and colleges, but also for the education quangos that sprouted like mushrooms over the last decade.
On Monday, the Prime Minister said that the consequences for the public sector of the financial crisis that this government inherited will be “painful”. I don’t want to make light of the fact that further and higher will inevitably bear their share of that pain. But even if the credit crunch had not happened and our economy today was booming, there would still be compelling reasons for this government to seek greater efficiency in further and higher education, informed by a sober analysis of what has worked and of what hasn’t.
As I’ve no doubt David Freud will tell you shortly, welfare, too, is in urgent need of reform. And there are parallels between the difficulties that beset the benefits system and those we are striving to address in further and higher education.
Some people call the benefits system a safety-net. And that’s also how post-compulsory education has often been treated in recent years.
Now, safety-nets have their place in extremis. But, personally, I think that most people would find a springboard far more useful.
As Winston Churchill remarked, “We are for the ladder, let all try their best to climb” and a net, “below which none shall fall”.
The last government made much of more people going into our universities rather than straight into a job or vocational training. But what about all those who were encouraged to aspire to the benefits that higher education brings, only to have their hopes dashed because there was no university place available for them?
We’ve also heard plenty in recent years about the numbers of adults whose training in the workplace was funded by the government. But we heard rather less about the fact that two-thirds of them got absolutely no benefit in terms of higher pay or career progression as a result.
What price lifelong learning for people who’ve been let down like that, especially those whose previous experiences of learning had been far from positive?
Educating adults – educating anyone – therefore has to be about giving the reality of opportunity, not just the illusion. Educating adults has to be a driver of social, economic and personal improvement, not a means of keeping the unemployment statistics artificially low.
All that implies that, notwithstanding the current state of the public finances, the government has a large agenda for change to deliver in further and higher education.
As further education and skills are concerned, our plans are built around three basic principles.
First, we must replace the bureaucratic, target-driven, top-down regime to which colleges, employers and learners alike have become used with a genuine devolution of power within the system. I see the Government’s primary role as being to create a framework which helps individual people and their employers to get at the learning they want or need. An indispensable part of achieving that goal is removing the barriers that get in the way of learning providers’ efforts to respond to what their customers are asking for.
For example, there are better ways of measuring the outcomes that trainers achieve than simply counting the number of qualifications gained. The emphasis must be put on progression, whether that’s to higher skills or to other forms of lifelong learning, including informal learning. Bureaucracy which creates artificial distinctions between further and higher education, between different types of institutions or programmes, or between formal and informal learning stifles the creativity that is the essence of a responsive skills system.
Second, we must eliminate waste and inefficiency wherever they are found by taking a robust attitude to value for money. That means, for example, refocusing the Train to Gain programme. The National Audit Office found that about £250 million a year from this programme was being spent on things that employers would otherwise have funded themselves. That can’t be allowed to continue.
But I want to make clear that what must continue is training in the workplace and public support for employers who want to offer it. That, too, is an assessment based on value for money. Vocational qualifications delivered in the workplace provide better wage returns on average than qualifications delivered in colleges, while apprenticeships offer the highest returns of all.
I’d like to remind you that the £200 million cut in the Train to Gain budget that George Osborne announced on 24 May was not money lost to further education. Neither was it a vote of no-confidence in workplace training. Quite the opposite, in fact, because the money deducted from Train to Gain is being reinvested to create 50,000 new apprenticeship places and to offer £50 million in new capital grants to colleges left in the lurch by last year’s funding fiasco.
Third, I believe that education should be about people, not just numbers. It must hold out the promise of good things for those who seek “to know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding; To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity”. Not my words, of course, but Solomon’s, from the Book of Proverbs.
And indeed, we must never forget that the individual learner must be placed at the heart of the whole learning process.
People should be helped to identify learning opportunities, whether at work or in college, that will lead them towards a better job or a more fulfilling life.
People should not just be left floundering without education, employment or training. No one deserves to be broken on the wheel that revolves from a dead-end job to unemployment and back again.
Last week at the Cass Business School, the Secretary of State Vince Cable described the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as a “department for growth”. The contribution of post-compulsory education to that mission is essential. I don’t just mean its contribution to economic growth, driven by the higher productivity that better work-related skills bring. I also mean its capacity to spark the personal growth and the growth of a more developed sense of community that all learning brings.
The need to find efficiencies is no reason to counsel despair in further education or elsewhere. As Cardinal Newman put it, “Let us act on what we have, since we have not what we wish.”
The government’s plans for further education and skills are far more ambitious and progressive than a diet of cuts and more cuts. Our proposals are not just to inform learners, engage employers and get off the backs of providers, but to give them the power to ensure that the system works in their best interests will be the most radical reform that skills has seen in at least a generation.
Whatever the economic weather, adult learning matters. There is much we can do, much we must do, to ensure that the beneficial power of adult learning reaches everyone, building stronger communities, stronger business and a bigger society.