Technical training. Go on. Dig in !

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.



Back from France

Hi, everybody ! Back from my holidays in beautiful sunny Brittany.  The more often I go to France, the less I believe the stuff in the UK press about how France is a basket case, and we must undertake every nonsensical austerian policy in order to avoid the dreadful fate that our Gallic neighbours are enduring.

Just for the record, where we live in France is not the richest nor the poorest area of the country.  Our neighbours are not rich, but have an astonishingly high standard of life.  The roads are well maintained.  I cannot remember coming across a single pot-hole in the 6,800 hectares of the Departement of Morbihan, or anywhere else for that matter.  The police seem to be invisible but effective.  The public spaces are clean, and there are still libraries, and swimming pools, and leisure centres.  Your local doctor can see you now.  The farms are prosperous and well managed.  Ditches and verges are scrupulously maintained.  Local produce – walnuts and plums, cherries and tomatoes, and, yes, apple brandy – is shared between neighbours, even English neighbours like us.  Industry and retailing are organised into clean and effective zones, with good access and parking.  Cycle paths follow former rail lines for miles and miles.  The town centre is spotless, apart from one piece of obscene graffiti, in (inevitably) English.  There is no public drunkenness, and virtually no begging. The work of school teachers is respected and reinforced.  Local democracy works – we know the mayor, and members of the council, in a way we do not in England.  This may be because there is still a lively local and regional press, as opposed to tired free-sheets we endure in the UK.  Artistic events (including excellent opera) are brought to our small market town, whose population of 9,000 or so – the size of Ledbury, or Cockermouth, or Shanklin, or Worsley – would not put it in the top 600 UK towns.  If this is failure, let me have more of it.

The numbers also suggest France is not the worst economy in Europe, not by a long chalk.  Some bits need sorting – some labour laws are daft – but the motivation is a respect for labour. Productivity – output per worker – is much higher than the UK.  So why does France get such a consistently bad press ?  This is a question asked by Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman here.  His conclusion is pretty much the same as mine:

It’s hard to escape the suspicion that it’s political: France has a big government and a generous welfare state, which free-market ideology says should lead to economic disaster. So disaster is what gets reported, even if it’s not what the numbers say.

Scottish independence

Whilst we were sunning ourselves in a Breton garden, the attention of the British media has been focused on the Scottish referendum.  I start from the view that no nation should try to hang on to people who calmly decide they want to be in another organisation: if the Kurds don’t want to be part of Turkey or Iran, why should they be ?  I also have Scottish blood – which in my case means a great-grandfather that my sister loved, but who died before I was born.  However, both of my regular readers will know by now of my contempt for nationalism, and particularly the extraordinary attempt by the “Yes” camp in Scotland to blame all the nation’s ills – whether financial failure or industrial decline, foreign policy adventurism or privatization,  inequality or political corruption – on “Westminster”.  As if no Scottish MP ever claimed expenses, or voted for the Iraq war.  As if Gordon Brown and Fred Goodwin were innocent in the financial crash.  What has been almost as pathetic has been the response of the “No” campaign, who have concentrated on the economic case against independence.

Now, I think the economic case against separation is formidable.  The idea of customs posts and immigration controls between Berwick and Carlisle appears ludicrous, but, er, that’s what it would mean, as the newly independent Scotland will not be allowed into the EU for at least five years.  To demand independence whilst asking to be dependent on another country’s financial policies (as the Nationalists appear to do, with their desire to hold on to the £ sterling) is bizarre.  To expect the English taxpayer to bankroll troubled Scottish banks is wishful thinking.  Work permits for Scottish workers in London ?  Silly objection, eh ?  Well, explain carefully why that would not be a consequence of independence.

But the point is that any divorce is about hearts as much as heads.  This is why the relentless emphasis by the No campaign on money has been so weak.  Think of it like a separation between two people.  As the disgruntled and disaffected wife/husband heads for the door, what effect will it have if the abandoned partner shouts “You needn’t expect any money from me” ?   Not much, in my view – and quite a bit less than “the kids will be desolate” or “we can work out our problems – tell me what they are for you – please let’s talk”.  Many “Yes” voters are repelled by inequalities, disgusted by attacks on public services, see no reason why we should be run by Etonians.  These are not at base financial issues.   I guess it is a sign of the Toryisation of modern Britain, the neo-liberal corporatism that dominates every debate, that Cameron and co cannot see that the Scottish voter may want to consider other things beside the size of their wallets.

Footnote: it’s ironic that it was Gordon Brown who realised this, and made a speech that many think was influential in swinging the voters away from separation.