The right course

One dispiriting aspect of writing a blog is how you find yourself criticising ideas that you thought were dead and buried.  I’d love to spend my time with positive and lively explanations of stuff I’m in favour of, but … but … but.  Just this July, I found myself having to explain why the Laffer Curve is such tosh.  And before that, in June, why funding education on results – and especially funding vocational training on employability success – is unwise.  And then in March, pushing back that public policy version of false memory syndrome suffered by those who drone about how Britain stood alone in 1940 (or that you can make sensible decisions on today’s world based on what happened in a war 75 years ago, even if you understood it).  Riffle back through my oeuvre, and you’ll find essays facing up to nonsense about the wonders of grammar schools, or the common sense of austerity.  What these ideas have in common is not just that they’re wrong, but that they will not die.  You think that no-one can believe this nonsense any more (austerity was knocked on the head by Keynes in bloody 1936, for heaven’s sake) but they keep coming back, like the zombie at the end of the horror movie that arises from the swamp just as you think it has been consigned to the depths of the black lake forever. (Since writing this piece, I’ve learned that Paul Krugman’s latest book, on austerity, is called ‘Arguing With Zombies’).

I’m an old further education hack, and so try to keep in touch with the ideas of those in charge of our post-16 system.  Some commentators think we live in a time of some hope.  After years of cuts – 40% since 2010, according to one estimate – FE is beginning to get mentioned in government education briefings and House of Commons debates.  However, alongside this welcome concern is an unwelcome zombie from the lake – the idea that we must determine what sort of courses students are allowed to study in our technical colleges.  Too much media studies, not enough engineering is the usual cry.  Just yesterday it came from the head of Ofsted.  A few days before, Twitter (@FEweek – a reliable source) reported on the keenness of bureaucrats to tell colleges what courses they should run, and which ones they shouldn’t – choices backed by the budgetary power they hold over the poor bloody infantry in the colleges and training companies actually doing the job.  The argument is that colleges should concentrate on running courses for which there are good employment outcomes and waiting vacancies.

Sounds really sensible, doesn’t it.  A recent article pointed out that there is a mismatch between the numbers doing particular courses, and the numbers of likely jobs in the economy when they leave.  15% of youngsters want to work in entertainment and sport, a sector that provides just 3% of jobs.  By contrast, accommodation and catering need almost seven times as many workers as there are students expressing an interest. But before we run off with this policy, let’s look at the reservations:

  • The delivery of the policy seems a bit foggy. Let’s be clear of the difficulty here: the proposal is that colleges should stop running courses students want to study, and instead offer courses people currently do not want to take.  This depends on persuading someone who wants to be a sports journalist, or a beauty therapist, to do something entirely different (the usual candidate is engineering).   You may have a different experience of persuading teenagers – or even adults – that they can’t do what they want than I have had, but I think success here is unlikely.  Blaming colleges for the situation – as some have done – is weird.  Believe me, they do not throw applicants on the floor and slap them around to change their desire to be a mechanic into a sullen acceptance of hairdressing.  They provide what customers want.  And as budgets are dependent on recruitment, if they didn’t, they’d soon go bankrupt.
  • Some of the debate seems to follow strange ideas about what is a ‘proper job’. I sat through a conference speech whilst an education minister said there was too much media studies and not enough engineering. I was Principal of Lambeth College. The Post Office had just shut down its last factory and apprenticeship scheme in the area.  However, the National Theatre, Brixton Academy, London Weekend Television, the second biggest training video company in the UK, the National Film Theatre (etc etc) were providing our students with entry level jobs.  Media provides a chunk of GNP, more so than the fishers and farmers Brexiters weep for.  It’s almost as if doing a lively job you enjoy is some betrayal of the our economic future.
  • Young people are preparing for a working career that stretches ever longer as life expectancy increases. We need to prepare them for the next forty years, which suggests maintaining a good general education rather than an ever limited number of training choices.  I would argue that media studies is an important part of such a general education.  We live in a world of fake news, where much of the information is filtered by newspapers owned by rich tax exiles, where the internet berates “MSM” whilst being even less accurate.  Even vocational courses need a generalist flavour. Volkswagen once found that, ten years in, technical change meant that those who had taken its apprenticeships no longer used most of what they learned. Nor do we want nurses or doctors wedded to twenty year old practice. We need courses that build study and research skills, and well-funded continuing education. (Note: as a result of austerity, participation in, and spending on adult and continuing education has fallen sharply in recent years).The allegedly fancy-dan courses that Ministers and civil servants decry can provide the skills we need.  Look at higher education.  Historians and classicists go into accounting.  William Hague did PPE and then worked as a management consultant.  The same applies in the FE sector.  As one Twitter correspondent wrote: “I’ve got an A level in dance – did I think it was going to lead to a glitzy career on stage? No. I did it because I loved it, it allowed me to be creative, gave me bags of confidence, and as a bonus, I made friends for life.”
  • How sure are we that we know what jobs will be around in ten, twenty, thirty years ? The Chief of the Association of Colleges said recently “I’m sceptical about anyone who believes they can determine what courses are needed to make the labour market more efficient”, and he’s right to be sceptical. My son-in-law joined the cutlery industry when he left school – an industry in which Sheffield was a world leader. He, er, no longer works in that trade.   There have been mistakes in predicted jobs.  In the sixties and seventies, students in computing were told to leave software development alone and concentrate on hardware design.  Nowadays, almost all devices are made in the Far East, and the cost of computing capacity falls every year.  On the other hand, western economies have lively companies based around making the digital economy work. My stepson runs one.  (Personal confession on job prediction: I remember dissuading a young woman from working towards a career as a footballer.  Women’s professional sport – what could be so ridiculous ?)
  • The proposal seems out of kilter with the desire to have a market economy. In fact, it’s pretty Stalinist.  Markets are supposed to work not via administrative fiats, but via signals – mostly price signals.  The way to get more engineers (or catering workers, care workers or hospitality sector employees) is for employers to offer higher wages and more interesting jobs.  The fact that they haven’t done so over the past fifty years suggests that that enthusiasm for those sectors is stronger in ministers’ hearts than in the guts of the labour market.  A personal note: I remember visiting Leeds College Of Building during enrolment week, just as the stories about plumbers earning fortunes hit the press.  There were queues literally round the block. Price signals work.  A famous economist once said that the principles of economics amount to one thing – if you give people incentives, they will use them.   Give them the wages and they will come.
  • Oh, and finally – have you noticed how this proposal is restricted to students at further education colleges. It is not intended to extend it to universities.  If Jessica and Ollie want to study History of Art (like Kate and William), or Classical Literature (like Boris Johnson), well, that’s OK.  The proportion of art historians or classicists required in the labour force is not mentioned.  For that cohort – still, despite recent progress overwhelmingly middle and upper class – will continue to enjoy freedom of choice, despite the argument being pretty much the same.

None of which suggests we should do nothing.  We don’t want students leaving college to find there is no call for their skills.  Nor do we want the demand for courses to be led by crazes and fashion. There was a boom in forensic science when CSI and similar TV programmes became popular.  “Ally McBeal” encouraged more people than was sensible to want a lawyer’s life.  Jamie Oliver briefly made it cool to be a celebrity chef.  So, what to do ?  Well the obvious place to start is the demand side, not the supply side.  Don’t forbid providers from offering what people want, make people’s choices better informed.  This implies a bigger role for careers education.  Much more information, much more discussion and interviews are needed, with a well-funded, expert and sustained (and, please, not out-sourced) service in every education area.  It should include aptitude tests, work placements, and should include adults as well as teenagers.  Detailed and accurate information on earnings and vacancies would be useful too.  They have this service in Germany, where there is much less of a mismatch than in the UK.

The other need is for a well-funded and organised continuing education service.  Jobs will change, and so will people.  It would be worth avoiding failed past attempts, such as the loans for adults that were an expensive cock-up under Blair.  There’s a case for splitting of costs, with subsidised fees – but not via privatised credit farming.  The House of Commons auditors discovered that more than a third of the £300m cost was lost in fraud.  And don’t “put employers at the heart” of the project.  When I taught evening classes, few of my students wanted to improve skills for their current employer.  They were seeking a way to promotion, or a different industry altogether, and that isn’t what employers would support.  Let employers pay for their own training, not the taxpayer.  But let’s not leave adults adrift – establishing an entitlement to counselling and learning, linked to previous education and the employment service, would be an important component.

But there is, to finish, a point about choice and liberty.  If someone wants to train as an actor, dancer or journalist, in the full knowledge that the rewards are low and jobs rare, let them. A lifetime of regret, of if-onlys and what-ifs, is rarely happy.