The future of the left since 1884

A long trail

Equipping citizens with skills for life is now more important than ever, argues Gordon Marsden.


Long read

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” Shakespeare, who penned those words in Hamlet, was born in a time of plague in Stratford. He saw the disease come back repeatedly, claiming thousands of lives in London and closing for long periods the theatres that were his livelihood.

Pandemics in both his time and ours, like comets, blaze a long trail. Coronavirus is no exception. As well as resulting in appalling tragedies for thousands of families across Britain, its consequences for livelihoods, economic prospects and, in a time of physical distancing, for social cohesion are multifaceted.

The worlds of higher, further education and skills are not exempt from this. Decisions taken now will reverberate for jobs, life chances and social mobility long after this pandemic departs.

The impact of the crisis is already daunting. It was forecast in May that an additional 600,000 18 to 24-yearolds could be pushed into unemployment in the year ahead and tens of thousands of others from their mid-20s into their 50s have already lost theirs.

Many of those who have lost their jobs will need retraining and reskilling, as will others whose jobs will disappear as the pandemic accelerates the changes expected to come about because of digital growth and automation.

Right now there are others whose immediate futures will be affected. School leavers with GCSEs, A levels or BTecs – their heads perhaps reeling after an extraordinary August  of  government indecision and U-turns – are off to colleges, universities, apprenticeships or other training in unprecedented circumstances.

Those graduating this year from universities or colleges face a very tough job market – as will those graduating in 2021 – given Brexit as well as the continuing impact of the pandemic. Add in apprentices whose employers or learning providers have become pandemic casualties and adult learners shortchanged by government over the past decade (leaving us a million fewer of them) – and the magnitude of the challenge is clear.

Much has been made of the differential treatment the government has meted out to the higher education and further education sectors. The chancellor’s statement in July, as well as promising a new £2bn kickstart scheme for 16 to 24-year-olds on universal credit with fully funded six-month work placements, offered 30,000 new traineeships and incentives for employers to take on apprentices.

There were warm words too from education secretary Gavin Williamson about new higher tech qualifications, more institutes of technology and a ‘German-style apprenticeship system’, all potentially to be spelt out this autumn in the budget and an FE Bill.

By contrast the universities minister Michelle Donelan carped at unidentified universities for recruiting disadvantaged students onto low grade courses (without any  evidence). Proposals from Universities UK for a pandemic package of funding similar to those given to other sectors were ignored, as were suggestions for reduced tuition fees if the impact on students locked out of campus life became severe.

Ironically the row of lemons from the government’s August fiascos have put universities back in the spotlight, given the devastating impact the results created by an algorithm would have had on applications from disadvantaged young people. The case for social mobility is back on the table. But so far there’s little lemonade from government to show for it.

Even before the results debacle, higher education was already facing a potential perfect storm, fuelled by the 2021 hike in fees for EU students post-Brexit and the likely end of UK participation in both the EU Erasmus scheme, which allows thousands of young people to study abroad, and the EU’s Horizon programmes from which UK researchers have benefited hugely. Then there is the disappearance from the UK of many Chinese students after the coronavirus outbreak and the deterioration of UK-China relations over Huawei and Hong Kong – a major financial blow for universities heavily dependent on them.

Now the demands of social distancing are impacting on universities’ planning for students on campus this autumn. London Economics has found that nearly two-thirds of HE institutions are in deficit, so it is no wonder UUK and Million Plus (whose universities represent significant numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds) have renewed their call for financial support.

The response of ministers so far to all this has been dismal. There has been little focus on how young students could cope – or afford – to keep switching between home and campus if local lockdowns (like those seen recently in Greater Manchester, Preston and Leicester, all with sizeable numbers of students) continue. Failure to engage with unions concerned about members’ health and safety or with the NUS about student support has not helped.

But neither is it all roses in the FE and skills sector. Despite being lovebombed by government, the legacy of year-on-year neglect and £3bn of cuts since 2010 has left deep fragility – despite their famed adaptability – in colleges and their finances.

Even with the summer’s initiatives, the devil is in the detail. A boost for traineeships was a consistent demand learning providers and I, when I was shadow skills minister, made. But for some of the institutions hit by the pandemic, it may be too little too late. It is crucial kickstart has some afterlife in providing long-term jobs.

Swift delivery of Whitehall measures is crucial for confidence given fears of a second coronavirus wave this winter. But Department for Work and Pensions secretary Therese Coffey told MPs returning from recess that the first kickstart placements would not be ready until November. Meanwhile the Department of Education has given FE colleges only half of the money they asked for to support students in lockdown – despite 85 per cent of colleges saying they had evidence of increased student hardship.

The truth is that those studying or working in both HE and FE have been badly let down by Tory governments for a decade. The lack of competence in Boris Johnson’s team has been ruthlessly exposed under the blowtorch of this pandemic and so too have the silos in which ministers operate.

The need to overcome this silo working – and the assumptions that Whitehall knows best in micromanaging decisions and funding to the regions, is not new. It underpinned the principles behind Labour’s independent lifelong learning commission in early 2019 which I helped set up and then co-ordinate.

The commission’s report last November was designed to address immediate needs in the next couple of years but also to set out a road map for the 2020s to a strong economy and a better society. The unique pressures thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic now turbocharge those objectives. How do we respond quickly to the pandemic but in a way that provides long-term benefits for education, jobs and skills?

We should do so using three guiding principles. Economic demand matters just as much as supply. That should be embedded across all the departments of government that impact on skills, jobs and education. Though input and resources are key at every stage, success should be measured by output, and most importantly outcomes, above all in productivity. And there need be no conflict between quality of life and social justice and the needs of the economy.

Labour has been ahead of the curve here in its plans for a Green New Deal. They build on previous commitments to create 80,000 climate apprenticeships a year with energy, transport and low carbon industries as priorities; retraining older people for green initiatives as well as recruiting a ‘zero-carbon army’ of young people, many of whom could otherwise, post-pandemic, end up swelling the current figure of 750,000 16 to 24-year-olds not in education, employment or training.

As for practical things to do now in HE during the pandemic, why not offer matched funding from Whitehall to encourage universities to replicate Cambridge’s £1m adult bursaries initiative? Target HE institutions based in disadvantaged areas for support and incentivise placefocused universities to co-operate with – but not take over – further education colleges. Trial means-tested grants for successful students completing HE access courses and for adult and part time learners.

Elected mayors and combined authorities have persistently lobbied government for more powers and money to regenerate their local economies, skills and jobs. Those arguments made repeatedly by Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram and others acquire extra force in the pandemic. Dan Jarvis, Labour’s mayor for the Sheffield City region, has said: “What we have across England is still too often delegation, not devolution.” He is right and government should learn the lessons from what other UK nations are doing.

For too long Tory-led governments were lukewarm towards engaging with trade unions eager to reskill their members. The much-praised Union Learning Fund, set up by Labour in the 2000s, and their reps have done fantastic work, but they remain thinly resourced. The lifelong learning commission recommended ULF funding be fully restored – now in this pandemic its role and resources should be expanded.

Working collaboratively is crucial. Our lifelong learning commisioners were drawn from right across the post-16 education sector, but all were united in their conviction that we need a radical shift to a fairer system of education and skills at all ages.

Their recommendations included a universal publicly funded right to learn through life, a range of entitlements to fully funded level 3 provision and publicly funded credits at level 4 and above, a potential right to paid time off for training, a truly national career service, the promotion of the integration of local skills, innovation and industrial strategies, a renewed focus on models of credit transfer and accumulation and improved pay and conditions for staff in the sector.

These recommendations all reflect that golden thread of progression and social justice embodied in the ideal of a  National Education Service, which should start by reviving the investment in early years embodied in Labour’s Sure Start and then give multiple chances at every stage of life for people to draw out their skills and talents, to their benefit and ours.

In the Life Lessons essay collection, published by the Fabian Society in 2018, Angela Rayner spoke of the need to “transform the lives of individuals and society and bring meaningful opportunities to all those areas that for too long have been left behind”. That should still be our goal. And as I said in my Life Lessons essay, progression and outcomes should be at the heart of this, “wrapped around and made stronger by funding systems that reflect our vision of education as a public good and not just a private consumable”.

In 1919, in the wake of the first world war and another devastating pandemic, the Spanish flu, a young civil servant published a book full of striking economic analysis and passion. That person was John Maynard Keynes, in his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

Now is the time to think hard about the economic consequences of coronavirus and climate change – bearing in mind the watchword of Keynes’ contemporary and kindred spirit E M Forster: “Only connect.”

Gordon Marsden

Gordon Marsden was shadow higher education, further education and skills minister from 2015 to 2019 and MP for Blackpool South from 1997 until 2019.


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