After some wanderings about Scotland and France, I return to something I know about, but which may be too boring for others to follow, namely the planning of technical education. There’s a distant connection with the Scots farrago, though, for what made my heart sink was a councillor from Manchester saying that regions wanted to regain powers from Westminster (fine so far) including further education (also fine so far) so that they could more closely supervise the work of technical colleges to make them fit the needs of local industry and (the example chosen) reduce the number of hairdressing students and increase the number of engineering students.
This, like crime in a multi-story car park, is wrong on so many levels (thank you, Tim Vine).
Firstly, it cannot be done. Are students who want to enrol for drama or hairdressing or animal care to be told “there’s no places for you, you’ll have to do engineering”? What will they do ? Shout yippee and pick up a soldering iron ? No, they will find another institution that will offer what they want, or drop out of education altogether. The idea that a college can magic engineering students out of the ether is fanciful. If the demand was there for science and engineering places, it would have been very much to the college’s financial advantage to provide courses that meet it, not only now but for the past thirty years. The idea that colleges have turned away students eager to study technology is a fanciful nonsense. I remember being a senior lecturer in a Manchester college that converted its engineering block to general and business studies, due to lack of students.
James Paice MP was the minister who told the conference of the Association of Colleges to shut down all this media studies nonsense and open engineering courses. I was a Principal in south London at the time, and in my borough the last major engineering plant and apprenticeship scheme – Post Office electronics – had shut down. We were, however, surrounded by expanding media companies – the National Theatre, Carlton TV, the National Film Museum, Brixton Academy, the Roxy cinema complex, plus a major private producer of training videos, and many more. I suspect the Minister’s problem was that media studies was fun and it was what young people wanted to do, and so must be shut down. Proper education is boring. This attitude echoes the hostility of the establishment planners to the art colleges, which have energised the creative sector – fashion, digital art, music – where this country has such a competitive advantage.
Secondly, the idea that the state knows what skills will be in demand in five or ten years is not true. In the 70s, there was exasperation that American university students wanted to study software engineering not hardware electronics. They were right and, as the last of computer manufacturing left for Asia, the ‘experts’ were wrong. Please note that the decisions made by those students was the same as the one made by IBM. The idea is in any case a curious one for neoliberal marketeers to adopt. They have condemned state planning for years. Technical training seems to be the only area where they think it’s a cracking idea. In fact, student demand for technical education responds well to market signals. I visited Leeds College of Building when the newspapers were full of news of plumbers earning a fortune. There were queues for plumbing courses quite literally round the block.
Thirdly, the idea that there is a skills gap, that there are loads of jobs that could be filled if only people had the right qualification, is tosh. If that were true, then the relation between vacancies and unemployment (the Beveridge curve, for economic nerds) would have shifted, and it hasn’t. If scarcity existed, wages for semi-skilled and skilled engineers and technologists would be rising sharply as employers competed for them. In fact, wages have been flat or worse for the past ten years, especially in engineering. Manchester is a fine place, but it has suffered badly from de-industrialization and the loss of manufacturing jobs. I would be gob-smacked if there were not many unemployed people in that city with experience and qualifications in engineering manufacture. My son-in-law is an experienced engineering worker, but following the closure of the manufacturers where he worked, he now works for a supermarket. The reason there is unemployment is that there are not enough jobs, and that is due to a lack of effective demand (or excess savings – same thing).
I think the main reason for my outrage is not the economic nonsense, but the casual and unthinking class distinction from a member of the Labour Party. The idea seems to be that university students, the Jessicas and Julians of this word, can choose anything they like. Classical literature. Archaeology. Astronomy. Study what you like, forget about the needs of the economy. But if you are a working class kid, leaving school at 16 to look for a vocational programme, you are not to have that choice. You are a drone, and you will only be able to do whatever some government Gradgrind wants to make available for you.