Reshuffling education policy: the new vocationalism

A liberal approach in neo-liberal times means learning about work and not just learning to work. Westminster remains stuck in a rut of recycling failed ideas entirely unsuited to its economic model of low wage, low skill work.

Patrick Ainley
10 September 2014

Earlier this summer education secretary Michael Gove was pushed out of the Cabinet while universities minister David Willetts jumped. In the run up to the general election, this suggested a new Coalition approach to schools, colleges and universities that, with Labour’s recent proposal for ‘institutes of technical education’, is now shared with the Opposition. Unfortunately for those who hold liberal aspirations in neo-liberal times, it is as illiberal as the old approach, if not more so.

The new direction was initially revealed by Matthew Hancock, former minister in the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (who was later reshuffled as a fervent fracker into the Department of Energy and Climate Change). He had previously declared that, in order to ‘rebalance’ school-leaver destinations, ‘university or apprenticeship will be the new norm’ for all 18+ year-olds. With the raising of the participation age (in school, FE and training) to 18 next year, Hancock’s ‘new norm’ presents all school-leavers with just two options – apprentice or student.

Gove and Willetts also considered these two groups needed ‘rebalancing’ because they thought New Labour’s widening participation in HE had allowed too many youngsters into university. Gove tried to reverse this by driving a hierarchy of semi-privatised state schools to compete in delivering a grammar school curriculum that would fail all but a few. He also thought such universal academic schooling would restart social mobility.

This is an illusion because the short period of limited upward social mobility in the last century has given way to general downward mobility in this one. Especially since 2008, numbers in low-paid, insecure and often part-time jobs have ratcheted up to include perhaps half of new entrants to employment. This fuels public hysteria about academic exams that function as proxies for more or less expensively acquired cultural capital as students desperately run up a down-escalator of inflating qualifications to avoid falling into the structural insecurity beneath.

The policy and professional consensus solution is that apprenticeships should be brought back to create an economy as productive as Germany’s. But this is another illusion because, such is the dominance of the UK’s deregulated and semi-skilled service sector, most employers don’t want or need apprentices. Thus most 18+ year olds are already overqualified for and underemployed in the jobs on offer.

This includes the graduates Willetts also intended to reduce in numbers by tripling student fees. But, rather than fewer, more school leavers took out loans for fees that added £191 billion to government debt. They did so in the hope of secure, more or less ‘professional’ employment rather than so-called ‘apprenticeships’, which, as my report with Martin Allen shows, adds up to Another Great Training Robbery like YTS in the 1980s.

Willetts tried repeatedly but failed to sell the growing mountain of student debt. He even claimed after his resignation he could sell the debt to the universities themselves. Some richer universities could then profit by selling loans to their own graduates who could be charged higher fees as they might get good enough jobs to repay them. But what of universities where many students are unemployed or in low-paid jobs after graduation?

Nearly all universities are in desperate competition to cram in students who are paying more for less. This includes widening participation that has extended to two-year degrees and other associated qualifications through training providers in partner schools and colleges, like Thatcherite revenant Kenneth Baker’s University Technical Colleges (UTCs). Linked to a 14+ ‘technical route’ leading to ‘vocational A-levels’ and reinvented foundation degrees, this bipartism could replace Gove’s delusions in ‘grammar schools for all’ – back to secondary technical schools and the polytechnics! The new Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has already announced more UTCs to bring the total to around 50 by May 2015 but Labour wants to double this.

Indeed, Shadow Education Minister Tristram Hunt has now proposed a Technical Baccalaureate for the half of 14+ school students who don’t make it onto the academic route, rebranding FE colleges as ‘Institutes of Technical Education’ with new part-time Technical Degrees, like the current two-year Foundation Degrees and old HNDs. This ‘higher level apprenticeship’ route is offered to supplement apprenticeships which Labour knows are not all they are cracked up to be – despite the expensive, glossy and misleading advertising for them.

Nor can England’s 249 surviving general FE colleges that have not yet merged or closed expect to benefit by providing apprentice training to school leavers as they once did because most apprenticeships nowadays are run by training agents outside the colleges on behalf of employers. Nevertheless, in a recent paper for the Social Market Foundation, Liam Byrne, Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills, hopes to ‘Reboot Robbins’ by replacing market-driven expansion with regional partnerships to end the ‘ferocious’ competition between universities, colleges and private providers.

But the problem remains that, however ‘employable’ schools, colleges and universities claim to make their graduates, education cannot guarantee employment. So, fundamentally the perception of ‘the problem’ needs to change: from being one where young people are seen as having to be prepared for ‘employability’ by earlier and earlier specialization for vocations that may not exist. Instead, the starting point should be a common general but not academic schooling to 18 giving entitlement to progression for citizens ‘fit for a variety of labours’.

This implies confronting the possibilities of flexibility but avoiding the current situation in which there are more people in the workforce but many are paid little for unregulated employment. Of course, this would require an alternative economic framework but not necessarily ‘the right to work’ with which the orthodox left continues to operate in a post-war collectivised model of the labour market.

Rather, a liberal approach in neo-liberal times means learning about work and not just learning to work. Paradoxically, for universities this means refinding the vocational nature of the higher education preserved by the most prestigious subjects at the most elite institutions, as in the ‘original vocations’ of Law and Medicine. Importantly, this includes an academic vocation dedicated to learning critically from the past with research and scholarship enabling change in the future. Undergraduates can contribute to that continuing cultural conversation, giving them a sense that many have lost of what higher education is supposed to be about.

Byrne’s proposals offer at least some possibility of HE recovering itself in connection with FE to build what has been called ‘A Liberal Vocationalism’ that is both theoretically informed and practically competent. But, unless this is related to economic reform to end austerity and the continued slide into low-wage, low-skill employment, these proposals risk repeating the failures to rebuild a vocational route to replace the industrial apprenticeships lost in the 1970s but this time at a tertiary level of learning. Or, worse still, they may involve forcing young people failed by an academic schooling into inferior vocational options with Chuku Umuna’s shameful promise to cut Job Seekers’ Allowance for under-25s ‘to plug the young unemployed into the global economy’.


Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley's report, Another great training robbery or a real alternative for young people? Apprenticeships at the start of the 21st Century, can be downloaded for free at Radicaled publications

This article is part of the Education strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.

Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London

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