“39% of employers admit to training none of their staff”

So said Mr Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee to a Westminster Hall debate in Parliament on Thurs 15 April 2021. You can watch/listen to his remarks here.

You can read the full report by the Education Select Committee on Lifelong Learning here. It’s headline demand is for a new community learning centre in every town.

“Adult community learning providers are the jewel in the crown of the nation’s adult education landscape. They bring learning to disadvantaged communities, providing a lifeline for adults furthest from qualifications and employment. …But there has been a 32% decline in participation in community learning between 2008–9 and 2018–19, with participation falling for five consecutive years.”

House of Commons Education Select Committee HC 278.

Back in February 2021 I wrote about building a new Adult Education Centre in Abbey Ward, East Cambridge.

Since then, Gillian Keegan MP has been appointed as the minister responsible for adult education.

Should Metro Mayors take control of education?

Depends on whether you think they should exist as a concept or not. Outside of that, they are there and candidates are standing for election to contest the posts, so it’s a reasonable question to put to them. Journalist Harriet Klugston explains here. She quotes the Centre for Cities think tank, who wrote this opinion piece calling for more powers for Metro Mayors. It was one I criticised – along with its original call, back in September 2020 because it had carelessly lumped various parts of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire together into a single unit, with Peterborough and north Fenland in another bit. My criticism are both on an historical basis (there is no historical basis for a Cambridgeshire & Huntingdonshire unitary council) and on a democratic one (the CForC’s report says proposals must come from county councils, not from the grassroots – which inevitably means a top-town approach favouring the already powerful, risking the problems that we already have with structures continuing).

If they are to take control of the post-16 education and skills agenda, and have a business-facing role, then they have a reasonable case for demanding more from business in investing in staff training and education.

The problem is the free rider problem as demonstrated in the market for trained town planning officers – of which there remain continual shortages. In particular for somewhere like Cambridge where as soon as a planner shows any talent and spark at planning committee, they are snapped up by the private sector on a multiple of their salary, and councils cannot compete while ministers maintain bans and prohibitions on how councils can raise funding (in particular from developers) to match those salaries.

The thing is, ministers have known about this for years – Frances Coppola the economist wrote about this problem nearly a decade ago. And yet here we are – in part because The Conservatives chose to use the EU Referendum to sort out their own internal party squabbles and lost control of the situation. As a result, vast sums of money and civil service resources have been squandered on their fantasy what could/should have been used to deal with more serious and pressing problems. So their ministers, past & present, own this. (As do the senior opposition politicians for failing to stop this when they could have done).

“There can be no recovery while government and business preside over the progressive impoverishment of large numbers of people. After all, business only prospers if the economy does, and the economy only prospers if people do.”

Frances Coppola, 12 Feb 2013.

I agree with Frances – the challenge from a public policy perspective is how. Because if firms are not investing in what are supposed to be their most valuable assets, their people, then the economy won’t prosper. Or rather, as Cambridge economist Dian Coyle wrote recently:

And we’ve already experienced one jobless recovery in recent times. As this ILR paper in 2014 also stated:

“The world economy may thus be growing somewhat faster than over the past three years.
However, the report finds that those economic improvements will not be sufficient to absorb the major labour market imbalances that built up in recent years.”

Risk of a Jobless Recovery? International Labor Office. 2014.

Note with the fallout from the CoronaVirus Pandemic, and the shedding of jobs across the retail sector as high street chain after high street chain imploded in the face of being hugely debt-laden and a collapse in demand, what hope for those on low paid, unstable hours contracts?

The self-made problem Johnson’s administration faces is that his ideologically-driven Government is hotwired into thinking that ‘the market’ will resolve the situation. The problem is that Brexit has caused a haemorrhaging of Foreign Direct Investment – as the House of Commons Library shows. This is on top of Boris Johnson’s botched Brexit Deal endorsed by the Conservatives that is resulting in hundreds of firms moving jobs out of the UK to the EU. So where are all of these new jobs going to come from?

Do the Metro Mayors have any powers to have make impact on the situation?

They can soft-influence at face-to-face events – but with the pandemic this isn’t going to happen. The ability to charm someone into doing something is somewhat limited behind a Zoom screen. And who would want to invest at a time when we’re still fighting a pandemic, and where we still need to restrict people’s movements, along with their social and economic activities?

  • Do Metro Mayors have the resources within their own settlements to deliver the network of adult community education centres in every town? No.
  • Do they have the legal powers to compel local councils to do this for them? No.
  • Have ministers set up a new funding programme to fund these centres? No.
  • Do Mayors have the ability to compel firms to invest in training their own staff? No.
  • Do Mayors have the necessary powers to provide significant tax and financial incentives to firms to train their staff? No.

So…what is available to potential mayors standing for election other than promises of more ‘partnership working with stakeholders’? Ask for yourselves via https://whocanivotefor.co.uk/ and see what they say.

Do ministers have public policy options to deal with the problems Frances Coppola identified?

The problem is that too many firms are choosing to benefit from the investments and expenditure made by others in their own staff. Firm A pays £X to train up a member of staff, and Firm B comes along with a financial offer more than Firm A can afford, and poaches the fully-trained member of staff without incurring any of the training costs or any transfer fee as you might get with a professional sports player under contract.

There are a handful of options ministers have, each with their merits and drawbacks. Do you bring in a ‘transfer fee system’ for the high skilled professions that have shortages? Do you bring in a training tax for all firms to pay for a new generation of training courses for people who want to retrain/upskill? Dare ministers move away from the destructive model of current student financing with massive debts that simply are not repayable in too many careers? Or will they simply add debt upon more debt to career-switchers many of whom may have accumulated debts from training and education for past careers? Why can’t we move to a system of substantial grants for costs of living while adults retrain? Mindful that even for PhD level training, existing bursaries are becoming too small and all too often, postgraduates have to self-finance or rely on families to fund them – which creates even greater problems for social mobility.

When we look at how the banks were bailed out in 2008, and how the global economy has been kept going by state intervention across the world, what policy options do ministers have open to them now that perhaps in decades gone by were unimaginable in mainstream politics?

Because ministers are going to have to make a decision one way or another, and that clock is ticking.

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