What does ‘more’ mean during an extended period of austerity?

2nd October 2014

Personally, I love the buzz of Party Conferences – they’re noisy, busy, cramped and there are always too many things going on at once and many fascinating discussions to be had during the long days. The downside is they’re amongst the worse places on earth to actually concentrate and think – which is scary, as it’s usually where I am when I’m asked to quickly formulate a sensible view on a brand new policy I’ve never heard of before.

This week’s Conservative Conference was a case in point, particularly during the Leader’s Speech, where we saw a range of highly ambitious new pledges and new tax cuts, against a backdrop of continuing austerity measures – and where the devil is always in the unpublished detail. So with the luxury of time and a good night’s sleep, here are my reflective thoughts on an interesting few days in Birmingham.

For the joint Fringe we held on Tuesday with 157 Group and AoC we had an extremely high-calibre panel – including former Universities Minister, Rt Hon David Willetts MP, and Education Committee Chair, Graham Stuart MP. We heard excellent questions and contributions from all attendees, and strong support for many of the priorities highlighted in NIACE’s manifesto.

Turning to the floor of the conference itself, a series of measures were announced over the week which will have a big impact on the way FE will likely be delivered if the Conservatives regain office in 2015, and some sooner. The biggest issue certainly remains the deficit and the big commitment to retain the ring-fence around health spending, together with £7bn of new tax cuts. Together, these measures will place much greater pressure on the public purse with experts like the IFS predicting that unprotected departments will see cuts very likely to exceed 20% for 2015-18.

The announcement (echoed in speeches by Cameron, Morgan, Osborne, Smith and Gove) regarding the funding of three million additional Apprenticeships over the next Parliament should be welcomed – although raises questions about how quality will be maintained, and how employers and learners will be incentivised to see it succeed whilst ensuring that learners (many of whom won’t be there by choice) won’t be exploited. This places even more emphasis on the need to introduce an Apprenticeships Charter, as advocated in our manifesto . This clear contract between the learner, employer and Government would serve a critical role in ensuring each of the objectives of the three parties if the contracts are achieved. This could satisfy concerns about maintaining quality, as well delivering a much greater return on investment for learners, employers and Government alike.

Perhaps more serious, are concerns about what money will be left to fund other skills interventions critical to our success, against a backdrop of further cuts and with dwindling funds mandated towards young apprentices only. Indeed, the new Skills Minister Nick Boles MP, told delegates at FE Week’s Fringe Event that colleges should reconfigure their budgets accordingly in preparation – clearly signalling where Government expects to see future resource earmarked. There’s certainly much more thinking to be done across the sector on the wider implications of this policy, which can only happen when the full detail emerges.

Our recent press release calls for an ‘adult skills revolution’ to help tackle the serious skills challenges ahead and our concerns about the impact on adult learners. The stark reality remains that there will be 13.5m job vacancies over the coming decade, but only 7m new young entrants to the labour market – so engaging adults in a culture of learning is a pressing economic necessity and critical to our future prosperity.

The Prime Minister noted yesterday that his policies aim to ‘Secure a better Britain for all’. This is an aim we all want to see and support, however, unless much more is done to help all members of society reach their potential, I cannot realistically see how this could be achieved.

We await further detail on yesterday’s announcements and also what will come from the Liberal Democrats at their Conference in Glasgow, where we will once again be making our case strongly for a skills system which is fit for the 21st Century, which delivers a truly lifelong learning society.