Past dreams of a distant future……
Author: Ewart Keep
Posted on: 30th March 2017
While writing an article on New Labour’s Train to Gain programme, I recently re-discovered a paper I had written in 2003 for the SKOPE High Skills Vision Conference, which we organised in September that year at Warwick University. The conference’s aim was to review progress towards achieving a high skills economy in the UK. I had entirely forgotten that I had written this piece, and, having corrected a few typos in the old conference paper (I suspect some more remain to be discovered) I have posted it up on the SKOPE website under ‘New Publications’.
Why bother? My answer would be that the paper tried to project forward from 2003 and develop three scenarios for what the economy, labour market and skills system might look like in 2015. The scenarios were meant to help think through the consequences of policy choices in terms of the different policy trajectories that might result from these choices, and where those trajectories could take us. Much of what was discussed remains immediately recognisable, although the author (sadly) failed to predict the global financial crisis of 2008, or Brexit.
The three scenarios were:
- A high skills vision achieved
- A point where the realisation that traditional skills supply policies were inadequate had dawned and where contestation about what to do next was under way
- Traditional skills supply models of policy were still dominant and major economic and social problems were rife
What makes the scenarios relevant to us today, 14 years further down the road, is that we are still locked in debate about what to do and where to go next. Having followed Scenario 3, we are now perhaps on the brink of starting to move towards Scenario 2 as the realisation dawns, not least in the wake of the Brexit vote that we remain a very long way indeed from Scenario 1 with significant costs to many within our economy and society. In other words, what is remarkable is how little substantive progress we have made in policy terms since 2003.
Massive amounts of public money have been spent; programmatic, institutional and regulatory reforms have come and gone in successive waves; rhetoric about the ‘skills crisis’ has never been far away, and yet actual progress measured in any terms other than the rising stock of qualifications at different levels within our workforce has been nugatory. We apparently have more skills, but employers struggle to deploy them productively in many workplaces; we have a significantly higher proportion of graduates in our workforce, but productivity has flat-lined; and the proportion of the workforce with less than Level 2 qualifications has carried on declining, but the numbers of low-paid, low productivity, low skilled jobs has risen. The Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data suggests that 10 years after graduating, no less than a quarter of all UK graduates are still not earning £20,000 p.a. Something has plainly gone wrong.
The paper tried to explain why, even in 2003, it seemed likely that progress would be slower and more halting than many might have hoped, and why constraints on how policy was being framed ran the danger of leading to path dependency in public policy on education, training and skills. Despite changes of economic backdrop and of government, these constraints largely remain in place, and thinking how we can break free from them is vital if we are to make up for lost time and to start to deliver real progress on the skills policy agenda. Hopefully this ‘blast from the past’ about what the future could look like will stimulate some reflection on where we go next, and how we go about getting there.