Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am pleased to have this opportunity of initiating a debate on what I believe to be a very important aspect of the Government’s legislative programme. That applies to any Government, no matter their colour, because without a coherent strategy to prepare for a strong and expanding economy at least for the decade ahead, no Government can deliver sustained prosperity for their people.
Last week the Chancellor announced that, his party’s Governments since 2010 having consistently failed to meet their debt-reduction targets, and with current debt at 86.5% of GDP, he would react to projections for productivity growth in the economy being revised down to 1.5% by adopting what by any standards are Keynesian principles: increasing spending and borrowing substantially over the next two years. I would say, “Well, better late than never”, to that.
Those projections came from the Office for Budget Responsibility, but several analysts argued that it actually overestimated the capacity of British businesses to invest in new equipment, processes and skills to drive up productivity. In the UK, productivity growth has flatlined since the financial crisis, leaving it behind all but two of the G7 leading industrial nations. Some industries are more productive than others. In the UK, manufacturing firms are among the most efficient, whereas the services sector operates at below-average productivity. So, what can be done to reverse that cycle of decline?
I believed—naively, no doubt—that it was no coincidence that the Government had responded to this debate by choosing today to publish their industrial strategy White Paper. What I had not anticipated was that they would respond with a double whammy, because just an hour before this debate began, I learned that the Government Office for Science has also clambered onto the stage. Future of Skills & Lifelong Learning is so hot off the presses that it is not yet available in the Printed Paper Office, but it was published today. It is a comprehensive evaluation of this country’s human capital and identifies five key challenges. Unfortunately, I have barely had time to skim its executive summary, far less delve into its 112 pages, on top of the 250 pages of the White Paper that has just been discussed.
When offered the opportunity to choose a subject for debate this is what we at Labour identified as a priority, and that was before it was known that these two important documents would appear today. This debate really ought to have been scheduled by the Government, perhaps for next week, to enable noble Lords to scrutinise both weighty publications properly and make informed comment. With the less than heavy current legislative programme, the Chief Whip might have been asked by Ministers to make space, but apparently not. That is to be regretted.
The White Paper consists of a number of initiatives that appeared in last week’s Budget speech, but it contains little that will help give businesses the certainty or incentives they need to invest in the face of the confusion surrounding the Government’s negotiation of our departure from the EU. It has “five foundations”, the second of which concerns people, which is the one most relevant to this debate. One of the certainly admirable aims under that heading is to:
“Establish a technical education system that rivals the best in the world to stand alongside our world-class higher education system”.
I fully support that. But in order for that to be achieved, colleges need to be properly funded to allow them to deliver world-class education and training. That means facilities, funding for students and a reboot of capital money to help ensure that all college buildings are fit for a modern workforce. I fear that that is not currently the case.
What other detail there is in the White Paper concentrates, it seems to me, on a relatively few elite industries in which the UK already has an advantage. That will not necessarily help the millions of people who work in low-productivity and low-wage sectors, such as retail, hospitality and social care, or those based outside the golden triangle made up by London, Oxford and Cambridge. Although the White Paper contains some welcome measures, it does not measure up to what is required to return the UK to the position where it has a consistently healthy and growing economy. According to a report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development this month, the UK is full of highly educated workers, with skills that unfortunately do not match the jobs available. The report maintains that as many as 40% of workers are either overskilled or underqualified for their jobs, while the same percentage are working in industries or jobs which are different from the sector in which they trained.
Too often, the OECD says, employers put too little effort into training workers in the right skills, and they should work more closely with the education system to ensure that school pupils and college and university students achieve the skills that are actually required by the economy. In particular, workers often lack verbal, cognitive reasoning, social and complex problem-solving skills. At an earlier age, rates of teenage literacy in England are lower than those of other OECD nations, and, indeed, it is the only nation in the OECD in which rates of literacy for 16 to 24 year-olds are lower than those of people aged 55 and over. In his Budget speech last week the Chancellor talked of creating an advanced skills economy. If they lack basic reading skills then people will be unable to gain the work skills that the economy so badly needs. School and college libraries help students to discover reading and to develop digital skills. As the economy braces itself for the chill winds of life outside the European Union, the decline of libraries as a result of the Government’s austerity cuts has put such skills development at great risk. To describe that decline as a false economy hardly does it justice, and it must be halted.
A lack of engineering, science and maths skills is a particular issue. The OECD characterises this as a cultural problem in the UK, with little having changed over the past four decades. It highlights the good news—that a very large number of students gain high-level qualifications—but qualifies it by pointing out that more needs to be done to make those qualifications relevant to work, and to keep training people who are in work to make sure that their skills improve and do not become outdated. A Labour Government borrowing to invest in our infrastructure, tackling low productivity and thus growing our economy, will be able properly to address those economic factors.
Lifelong learning is, of course, the key. We heard it just last week from the Open University’s vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, who said:
“The current generation of students will face the reality that lifelong and career learning will be an economic necessity. Rising automation and great strides in artificial intelligence will destroy jobs and create new skilled roles that will require some form of formal higher qualification, but not necessarily full degrees”.
That is why a prosperous learning and earning higher education sector is needed now more than ever. Not only does it increase productivity and regional skills, it promotes social mobility, enabling education to be for the many and not the few. Yet the market for part-time higher education in England is currently in crisis. Learning and earning is central to economic success and to delivering on the Government’s oft-quoted aim of enabling social mobility. Part-time higher education and distance learning should be an essential part of the response to the two fundamental economic challenges that the UK now faces: low productivity and skills shortages.
These challenges cannot be met by relying on young people alone; the gaps are too wide and too urgent. All adults of working age, whatever their background or location, need regular opportunities to upskill or reskill throughout our lengthening working lives. Learning and earning will make the biggest and quickest difference for the individual, the employer, the regions and ultimately the country.
Report after report and organisations from various sectors all make these points. One of these was the government-commissioned Made Smarter review, published last month. It may have understated the case with its recommendation that 1 million workers in the next five years will need to be reskilled and upskilled.
Although there is some government action, it seems piecemeal. The March Budget announced a £40 million fund to pilot lifelong learning initiatives; and a few weeks ago, phase 1, a £10 million flexible learning fund to support projects that deliver learning to adults in ways that are flexible and easy to access, was put out to tender. There was some movement in the right direction in last week’s Budget, such as the announcement of a national retraining scheme in partnership with the CBI and the TUC. It prioritised the delivery of high-quality digital skills courses to adults, and it is essential that more detail on this emerges quickly. It was pleasing to see recognition given to the role of trade unions, with additional resources for Unionlearn to continue to support workplace learning.
Apprenticeships have a vital place at the heart of the response to skills shortages, not least for small firms. The apprenticeship levy and the expansion of the Institute for Apprenticeships to encompass technical education in its title from April are both positive moves. But there is a danger that, with the Government clearly obsessed with the target of 3 million apprenticeships by 2020, quantity will triumph over quality, with not enough apprenticeships above level 2. There are worrying signs, with last week’s announcement by the Department for Education that there has been a 59% drop in the number of apprenticeships in the last three months of the academic year, compared with the same time a year ago. The Federation of Small Businesses said that those figures confirmed its fears and that the apprenticeship levy was not solely to blame for the drop. Of course, very few small firms pay the levy and these businesses will be essential to the Government reaching their target of 3 million apprenticeships. The FSB reported that although many small firms are committed to apprenticeships, too many remain overwhelmed by the complexities of the system, calling for small firms to be involved in the design of the new apprenticeship standards. I really hope that the Government listen to these concerns from some of those involved at the sharp end of apprenticeship provision.
Part-time higher education—what I referred to earlier as earning and learning—is in crisis in England and real urgency is required in response by the Government, because part-time and mature students are the real casualties of the 2012 higher education funding changes in England. Overall, there are now fewer people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university than ever before. That cannot be denied. because two weeks ago the Universities Minister, Jo Johnson MP, admitted in a Written Answer to a Question from Daniel Zeichner MP that the number of part-time English-domiciled undergraduate students from low-participation areas who entered English higher education institutions for 2015-16 represented a 47% decrease from the figure for 2011-12. Of course, that is directly related to the increase in loans.
There is now recognition, it seems, in Tory circles of the extent of the problem. Last month the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, who I regret is unable to participate in this debate. because I valued his contributions to the Higher Education and Research Act, even though I often did not agree with him, gave evidence before the Economic Affairs Committee of your Lordships’ House. He said it was “very regrettable” how the new system of loans had put part-time students off since 2012. With remarkable candour he said:
“I have to accept that it is one of my biggest regrets about my time as Minister … I accept that the loan model has not delivered for them”.
The question is what action the Government will take to address that problem, because part-time students are not a homogeneous group. They are people in work who want to gain a new skill, and have family responsibilities, mortgages and competing demands on their time; some have disabilities which mean they can study only through part-time distance learning. They are people living in towns and cities throughout the country as well as in rural areas. This is not a small student group: one in five first-year students in England study part-time. Higher education policies need to work for them too, not just for 18 year-olds studying full-time at university.
It is a fact that those who have been most deterred from study by the trebling of tuition fees are not those 18 year-olds, but older students, especially disadvantaged students. The Government have introduced maintenance loans for part-time students, although not all will qualify until 2019-20. Meanwhile, the downward trend continues, partly because part-time students are far more debt-averse and employer-sponsored degrees have declined. The steepest drop in part-time higher education in England has been among those aged 30 to 49—people of prime working age. This puts at risk the UK Government’s efforts to ensure that we have the skills base to support the economy outside the EU. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that. Part-time higher education must play a key role in developing a strategy for lifelong learning and adult reskilling.
A further barrier to adult education and lifelong learning is that the alternatives to full-time residential higher education are underdeveloped. To deliver a dynamic adult skills system and establish a culture of lifelong learning, the single most significant barrier to learning throughout life must be addressed—finance. Young adults who opt for courses at level 4 or 5 have no access to maintenance support. There has been a serious decline in the number of mid-career adults taking higher education courses and there are low numbers taking higher education courses below degree level. This may be holding back not only the prospects for individuals but the skills available to employers and our public services.
Organisations such as the Association of Colleges, the Open University and the Institute for Public Policy Research have all advocated the use of personal learning accounts to encourage more adults to invest in learning and training. This requires long-term investment as well as a culture change at all age levels, and one means would be to develop learning accounts that learners could use to finance their study. We believe that this option is very much worth investigating and I hope the Government will do so. But even with this shift, there will be a significant challenge to encourage people to invest in higher levels of learning, particularly at levels 3, 4 and 5, where many of the skills shortages are becoming increasingly worrying.
Further education colleges will play a key role in this. They already provide academic, technical and professional education for young people, adults and employers. Yet public investment in colleges has been hit harder than any other part of the education system in the past decade. Properly resourced by a Labour Government, they will build on their reputation as engines of social mobility, helping businesses improve productivity and thus driving economic growth, while being rooted in and committed to their communities.
At both local and regional levels there is a need to provide careers information, advice and guidance, making greater use of labour market intelligence and mid-life reviews. More employers need to offer opportunities to adults, particularly those who are older and keen to remain active in employment.
Labour is committed to investing in lifelong learning through the creation of a national education service for England. Like the National Health Service, this will be a cradle-to-grave provision, free at the point of use and built on the principle that every child and every adult matters. A Labour Government, borrowing to invest in our infrastructure, tackling low productivity and thus growing our economy, will be able properly to address those economic factors. We will enable a learning and earning higher education sector which will lead to increased productivity and regional skills, enabling education to be the vehicle for a secure, productive working life for the many and not just the few. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Watson on securing this important debate. As chairman of the Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick, I have worked on creating modular degrees and in-work education for many years. Workplace learning is at the very core of WMG’s purpose, so I declare my interest. I know from WMG’s work that many noble Lords speaking today deserve great credit for the issue of skills having moved to the top of the political agenda.
Both the Budget last week and today’s Industrial Strategy White Paper underline the importance of skills and lifelong learning to British economic success. I expect I am not the only speaker who has been busy with a highlighter and the White Paper this afternoon. However, the White Paper’s stress on the importance of adult skills and lifelong learning is not new. After all, we are nearing the centenary of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s 1919 report on adult education, which led to local authorities being given responsibility for adult education. Indeed, as Winston Churchill said in 1954:
“There is perhaps no branch of our vast educational system which should more attract within its particular sphere the aid and encouragement of the State than adult education”.
More recently, we have had the Moser report, which led to Skills for Life, and the Leitch report, which led to Train to Gain.
To deliver these strategies, we have had a dazzling array of bodies: the Manpower Services Commission, the training and enterprise councils, the Learning and Skills Council, the Skills Funding Agency, and the Learning and Skills Network. Yet despite the reports, the commissions, the councils, the agencies and the networks, the core issues remain. Work by the LSE’s Centre for Vocational Education Research shows that the percentage of adult employees in learning or training has been falling since the millennium. Of those in learning or training, there is a rise in the numbers doing short courses and a fall in the share working towards a qualification.
The truth is that far too few adults at work are getting a good education or earning a widely recognised qualification that will strengthen their long-term career prospects. At the same time, technological change is transforming the world of work. No one wants their parents’ autonomous car or their internet-enabled medical devices to be insecure or wrongly updated because of poor skills. In autonomous vehicles alone—we design a lot at WMG—the scale of reskilling needed is enormous, whether in car design, highway maintenance, manufacturing, dealers, commercial transport or regulators. Learning new skills and reskilling workers in sectors that are being transformed by new technologies is increasingly essential.
To be fair, recent Governments, whether Labour, coalition or Conservative, have followed Churchill’s advice and recognised that adult skills are a priority. The White Paper on industrial strategy shows the beginnings of a non-partisan approach to the issue, although it might not look that way from the Front Bench. You can always tell when there is a cross-party consensus: the Opposition accuse the Government of recycling old ideas. The industrial strategy deserves a broad, if restrained, welcome for its approach to adult skills. One of the most pleasing signs of this in the White Paper is the recognition that the TUC and the CBI both need to be involved in the national retraining partnership. Similarly, I am happy that Unionlearn was extended. It is an excellent programme.
One of the issues we must face together is improving standards, whether in apprenticeships or technical qualifications. We have seen a 40% decline in the number of people studying for recognised standards such as HNCs, HNDs and foundation degrees. I would not mind if this were the result of limits on poor-quality courses. Sadly, we have seen falls in fields such as engineering and computing—precisely where we need growth. We must prioritise extending the number of higher and advanced apprenticeships. We need business to focus many more resources on adult education and skills at levels 4, 5, 6 and even 7. With a leaving age of 18, levels 2 and 3 are qualifications that pupils should really get before entering work. Similarly, colleges should be offering level 2 and 3 courses directly to those seeking to return to work.
At WMG we offer levels 1 to 3 only to students up to 18 at our Academy for Young Engineers, which we run under the auspices of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust. The majority of these students either go to university or become apprentices. At WMG itself, we offer courses at levels 4, 5, 6 and above. By the end of the decade we will have more than 1,000 apprentices at any particular time. Skills programmes such as the ones we run today work well for larger employers which can afford to think for the long term—but what about the backbone of the economy, the small and medium-sized firms?
All our 1,000 apprentices are paid for, fully, by the companies. They also pay the university to get their degrees. Only one in 10 SMEs offers apprenticeships. The proportion offering higher and advanced apprenticeships is even lower. Business has to put its hand in its pocket to change this. Big business especially has to do more to help its suppliers and its sector. When I was an apprentice, more apprentices were trained by the company so that some of them could go to the suppliers and the smaller sectors. There is no point in businesses crying about the lack of proper technical education if they are not prepared to invest in their sector’s success.
I am not too worried about the decline in apprentice starts that we saw last month. A shift in demand was always likely when the levy came in. After all, if there is a decline in the apprenticeships that employers are unwilling to pay for, the likelihood is that people were training for training’s sake, or even having apprenticeships for the grant’s sake. But to make a success of the levy, smaller businesses need support. To help them, we need to improve the skills provision of FE colleges and their reputation with local business.
I welcome the commitment in the Budget to put more funding into flexible learning and skills in areas such as construction. Our experience at WMG is that when we engage with small business on lifelong learning, there is a lot of untapped demand. Many SMEs want to develop their staff but want them to have only high-value qualifications, so that they know the skills their workforce is gaining are worth the cost in time. If they cannot afford to have many apprentices, they want to get value out of them. We need to help small companies deliver courses that employers value and which employees want to complete. We need skills to be employer-led, but also to offer smaller firms a helping hand.
With the apprenticeship levy, we are seeing the emergence of a pot of money that can be used by SMEs for that purpose—the levy unspent by large employers. This funding should be offered to small and medium-sized employers on a sectoral basis, to get them to provide quality apprenticeships. If we want to change vocational learning, we must all work together to give adult skills a higher status. To achieve the objectives of the industrial strategy it is essential that everyone, whether in a business, college, union or university, understands the importance of skills in the new technology economy and invests accordingly. Technology is now moving so fast that, if the Government said tomorrow, “By 2025, we want cars that are entirely unmanned”, it would require skills, construction and road levies to achieve that, and it would have to involve dealers, suppliers and everybody working in the area. That will not be easy. The only way we can do it is to have a proper strategy for new technology and the new economy.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Watson, on securing this debate and on his quite perfect timing. I do not know whether he had any idea that the industrial strategy would be published today but it has been, which makes this debate extremely pertinent. I declare an interest as a member of the independent review group led by the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, which recommended changes in technical education. Of course, I welcome strongly the Government’s acceptance of that group’s recommendations. I will not really concentrate on that issue but on the core issue of adults and lifelong learning.
Having had time to skim-read the strategy, particularly the section around page 116, I have to say that it is sadly thin. This is important because outside a number of key sectors, the whole developed world is facing something of a crisis and slowdown in productivity. We may be in particularly bad shape but this is not a UK-specific issue. No one quite understands why this is so or whether we have arrived at a period of slowing innovation, as the great economist Robert Gordon believes. However, it is clear that there is room for considerable, if not enormous, improvement in parts of the British economy: in particular, we have regional differences in our economic health and well-being that have been a national disgrace for many decades. For the regions in this situation, the reality is that if we cannot do something about adult education and lifelong learning there, we are not going to be able to do anything much at all.
I am conscious, standing here, that the conventional answer on productivity and economic growth is always to have skills and education. Clearly, this is part of the answer. We know that we have many shortages in a good many specific and high-level skills. We have too few engineers, too few technicians in biotech and too few of pretty much everything in construction. But we also need to be aware that increasing skill levels as the main way to drive productivity up has been the strategy of successive Governments in this country for several decades. It is largely in the name of productivity and growth that our whole higher education policy has been and continues to be framed. We need to learn from our past mistakes, as a precondition for thinking about how we might do it better in the decades to come.
As an example, the graduate premium, which has been taken as a sign of productivity, has driven higher education policy in this country and continues to do so—the premise being that if graduates earn more then the more graduates we have, the richer we will all become. We already have one of the highest participation and graduation rates in the OECD. We continue to make it easy for young people to take three-year degrees and rather hard for them to do anything else, since they get much less support for level 4 or 5 than they do for a degree. Yet as other noble Lords have pointed out, we have not only a marked lack of the wonderful economic success that this was supposed to bring but a catastrophic fall in part-time and adult participation.
We have also come through a period when even clearer or harsher quantitative targets than that of 50% being in higher education, which Governments have committed to, have driven a great deal of our education and skills policy at pre-higher education levels, or below that level. The target culture reached its apogee in the Leitch report, which could be called a great success: almost half of adults in work acquired some form of formal certification in the years between the mid-1990s and about 2010. Again, it is not clear whether this was a hugely successful strategy for anybody or anything. There was not much reward for them in the labour market. To come back to our economic situation, it is not quite clear what happened but it was very bad for adult and community learning because if something was not qualification based, it was out in the cold.
Then we come to apprenticeships. As the noble Lord, Lord Bhattacharyya, said, we must see our future as lying with them but if we do not get that right, a lot else simply cannot work. After a period in which apprenticeships were deeply out of fashion, they came in from the cold in the 1990s and were then promptly distorted by quantitative targets and a system of funding which incentivised people to do the shortest, cheapest and easiest apprenticeships on offer. My heart rather sank when I saw the proposal for 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020 blazing out from the Industrial Strategy paper. But as far as I could see, there was nothing more so I will hold my breath and hope that we can be slightly more sophisticated in our approach to it.
The point about all this is that your Lordships could, and indeed should, see many of our most recent failures as the result of something that was a comprehensive strategy—one which, as I said, was shared in a cross-party consensus. It was a strategy to pile up formal qualifications, and in the process we not only lost part-time and adult higher education students but have had the near-total disappearance of technical qualifications and the ongoing destruction of adult and community learning. So any comprehensive policy going forward must start at the level of the workplace and the individual, not from targets set by central government.
In this context, it is well worth reiterating that a downturn in apprenticeship numbers is not necessarily a bad thing. If it is the result of having people start level 3 or level 4 qualifications rather than level 2, that will automatically divide the numbers by two or three. What we have done is to move away, at least to some extent, from a system which gave people incentives to do very short apprenticeships irrelevant to much of the local economy.
That leads me back to the industrial strategy. Not only is it very thin on adults, but in so far as it says anything much about them, it is strangely unlinked to one of the curious but potentially beneficial aspects of modern British skills policy, which is adult apprenticeships. They started, in my view, for the worst of possible reasons, which was basically to make it easier to meet the targets. However, in this country we encourage people to take apprenticeships at each and any age, whereas traditionally, and in most of the rest of the world, apprenticeships are very much a way of bringing young people into skilled employment and adulthood.
Adult apprenticeships are part of a national system which everybody recognises—everybody knows what an apprenticeship is about—so we have an opportunity to use adult apprenticeships and to take advantage, serendipitously, of something which was not intended for this and make them truly a part of a lifelong learning and skill-upgrading policy for adults in the workplace. One of the things that somewhat puzzled me is that this national retraining scheme, which may or may not come out of deliberations by the CBI and the TUC, does not link into apprenticeships at all. It seems to me there is a terrible danger that it will become yet another of these initiatives which five or 10 years from now we will not remember which one it was.
The point about adult apprenticeships is that, compared to what is happening in higher education, we have an encouraging profile. We have a large number of people over 25 doing not merely advanced but higher-level apprenticeships—170,000 doing advanced and 43,000 doing higher, which is really very good, especially at a time when other forms of level 4 and 5 are vanishing. Compared to the shrinking adult representation in higher education, the profile among higher-level and advanced apprentices—so not level 2 shelf stackers, as part of a way to get money to a training provider—is that 40% are aged between 25 and 59. This is a key demographic and the sort of people we really need to reach.
I would like to ask the Government to think very seriously about this. In the context of disappearing level 4 and 5 qualifications in higher and further education, of a funding system which has clearly had a devastating impact on the ability and willingness of part-time adult students to take higher education qualifications, and of an adult and community education system which is a shadow of its historic self, I urge them to put high-quality adult apprenticeships at the centre of everything in the industrial strategy, rather than feeling that they should invent some more, wonderful, short-lived initiatives to pile on top and get tomorrow’s headline.
My Lords, I echo the thanks expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for securing this debate. It is clearly essential for the prosperity of our nation that lifelong learning is made a priority. Following cuts in the recent past, the Budget offered some welcome additional funding, including new funding for training in digital skills and construction, and the announcement of a retraining scheme for adults. The industrial strategy published today is a welcome step forward.
The problem, however, is immense, as has been acknowledged in your Lordships’ House today. There is still a great deal to be done as far as developing a proper long-term approach to improving adult skills is concerned. The Government acknowledge the importance of the task: its own industrial strategy Green Paper spoke of the,
“growing challenge with lifelong learning”,
“living and working longer, but training across working life … going down”.
It is also true to say that young people today can expect several careers, for which retraining will be necessary—ones for which they could never have planned in advance. I wish I had been reskilled to equip me to participate effectively in the House of Lords. That is a skill I never envisaged needing.
Longer-term support for the radical reform of professional and technical education—T-levels—is warmly to be welcomed, and it is good to see continued investment above that announced by the Education Secretary in the summer. Similarly, the emphasis on integrating high-quality and substantial work experience in these new programmes, along with the clause of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, requiring schools to open up careers education and the careers strategy announced in another place, are all needed, although they apply chiefly to younger students, not to adults who may be in low-skilled jobs or need retraining to meet new industries and new demands.
This task, as has been acknowledged, is both important and urgent. It is crucial to our economy and prosperity. However, any strategy should concentrate not just on particular skills. It is ironic, in my view, that we are concentrating more and more on the latter at a time when we know less and less about which skills will be needed in what the Motion refers to as,
“the changing nature of work”.
Over the last generation, we have seen an almost complete triumph of utilitarianism in education, wonderfully symbolised by the fact that higher education was for a while the responsibility of a department for “Business, Innovation and Skills”, not for education.
The irony is that such an approach is not as utilitarian as it seems. The Government Office for Science report Future of Skills & Lifelong Learning makes clear that employers are looking not just for relevant qualifications and/or discipline-related training but also for,
“more positive attitudes towards work as well as ‘character’ attributes”.
That word “character” is surely a very significant one. The idea of a university as a school of virtue seems to have disappeared, and training for virtue does not seem to happen much elsewhere, although it is one of the primary objectives of a Christian education. Virtue can be learned, and it is for the good of all that it should be.
The opportunity to engage in lifelong learning is of particular importance among those who have not flourished, for whatever reason, during their school career. I observed that at first hand during my time as a parish priest in the heart of industrial Tyneside. I am proud of the part that the Church was able to play in encouraging and enabling that, and the same is true in the Metropolitan Borough of Dudley in the Diocese of Worcester. Such learning enables people to secure better jobs but it also enhances their self-esteem immeasurably, which has a knock-on effect in wider society. Such benefits have been proven by research such as that recorded by the Government Office for Science. They include health, higher levels of interpersonal and social trust, social connections and social involvement, and crime reduction. It is a matter of grave concern that participation in part-time learning among adults has declined in the past few years.
I urge the Government to work harder and harder on developing a much-needed, bold and strategic approach to adult learning. Further, I submit that such an approach should acknowledge that lifelong learning needs to be about more than the acquisition of particular skills, important though that might be. The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, referred to the failure of past comprehensive policies. Perhaps that is where they have gone wrong. Such a recognition would, it seems to me, have economic benefits, but much deeper and broader ones, not only for the individuals concerned but for society at large.
My Lords, I join other colleagues in thanking my noble friend Lord Watson for securing this debate.
The issues we are considering tonight are not new. More than 20 years ago, I remember reading some research which showed that in the United States, 80% of people in work had been back in a classroom-learning situation since leaving education. The figure was 56% in Germany and Japan, and barely 30% in the UK—that is the mountain we have to climb. I confess I do not know what the figure is now; perhaps the Minister might enlighten us when replying. However, my own experience of 27 years in newspapers and publishing before being elected to the other place taught me that whenever there was an economic downturn, it was training and upskilling that went first when budgets were cut, and when I became an MP and a Minister it was no different. Indeed, during my time in newspapers and publishing, which included two periods of recession, the one area of newspaper advertising that remained relatively buoyant was recruitment advertising. Why was that? Simply because many companies, having failed to train and upskill their own staff, sought to persuade better-skilled and better-trained staff employed by their competitors to jump ship and join them.
The truth is that we never stop learning. I want to highlight a particular issue today. We have heard much about the lack of a skilled workforce, but an unbelievable number of barriers are put in the way of our fellow citizens with learning difficulties—especially autism—who want to get a job in the first place, let alone improve their skills or retrain. Our economy, our country, is wasting the talents of so many people who simply need to be given a chance.
“I’m not unemployable, I’m autistic”—
that was the powerful message on the front page of a report published by the National Autistic Society into the autism employment gap. I declare an interest as a vice-president of the society. The Government had made a welcome pledge to halve the disability employment gap by getting 1 million more disabled people into work, but for nearly a decade the full-time employment rate for autistic adults has stagnated. While work is not right for everyone on the autistic spectrum, the majority of autistic people want to work and have much to offer. However, efforts to help them into work and stay in work are failing. A survey carried out by the NAS, which interviewed 2,000 people, indicated that the full-time employment rate for autistic people remains stubbornly low at 16%, just 1% higher than in 2007. Combined with the part-time rate of 16%, this gives an overall employment rate of 32%, compared with 82% of non-disabled people and 47% of people with other disabilities.
The overwhelming majority of autistic people want to work, but the types of work that they want can vary greatly. The truth is that autistic people, like anyone else in society, want to work across all sectors in a huge variety of jobs. Given the low employment rate for autistic adults but the big mix of skills and interests, we need a government programme to develop and raise awareness of autism among employers, and to identify the skills gaps in the economy and how autistic adults could be supported to fill them. One of the key challenges that autistic people face in getting into work is preparing for work. Work experience, internships and apprenticeship programmes, alongside training, can be particularly beneficial for autistic people, helping them to build confidence.
However, too often autistic people have a negative experience at their jobcentre. Jobcentre Plus is often the “front door” to people’s first conversation about gaining work. When asked to rate their experience of Jobcentre Plus, over six in 10 of those who responded said it was poor or very poor. Fewer than one in seven said it was good or very good. Many say that staff do not treat them as individuals or consider the particular adjustments that the staff themselves need to make to meet the communication and other needs of autistic people. This is particularly important for people who may not qualify for formal employment but who increasingly will receive their support from work coaches at jobcentres. To do their jobs effectively and to ensure they are complying with the Equality Act, all staff at jobcentres should have the training in and knowledge of autism to support the people they are working with. Does the Minister agree?
The National Autistic Society survey of employers exposed some of the myths that employers may believe, which could cause bias against autistic people both in recruitment and in the workplace. For instance, 34% said they thought an autistic person would be unlikely to fit into their team and 28% said an autistic person would be unlikely to be a team player. Roughly half of the NAS respondents with experience in the workplace reported bullying or harassment due to their autism. These bad experiences have long-term consequences. Autistic people can be left with lower confidence than ever, leading to long-term unemployment, greater dependency or mental ill-health.
However, it is important to recognise that the vast majority of employers want to do the right thing but feel apprehensive about getting things wrong and often do not know where to go for advice. A growing number of employers are working with the National Autistic Society and other organisations to offer work experience and internship programmes to young people on the autism spectrum. Research suggests that this type of stepping-stone job often translates directly into paid employment as it enables both participants and employers to test suitability.
It is helpful for young people to be exposed at an early age to a working environment and to begin to understand how workplaces operate and what is expected of them. A pilot project in Surrey called Employment Works for Autism combined training, work experience and ongoing support for autistic jobseekers. It cost £3,000 a head for a year, and at the end of the year 43% of the jobseekers were in paid work, filling businesses’ and industry’s skills gap, while half were in ongoing work experience or volunteering. As part of their Green Paper on supporting disabled people into work, published over a year ago, the Government committed to trialling supported work experience for young people with a disability. How is that trial going? What plans exist to make supported work experience opportunities like the one in Surrey more widely available?
I welcome the fact that maths and English minimum entry requirements for apprenticeships are now flexible, so that those with education, health and care plans can be considered. That opens things up for people who may be very capable on a practical level of taking on particular apprenticeships but who, because of a disability, might struggle academically. How many autistic people have been able to take up this opportunity? What impact is this having on autistic people’s employment rates? More widely, it is more than a year since the Government published their Green Paper on disability employment. When do they plan to publish their next steps? To what extent will those steps look at skills development, apprenticeships and internships? These are the issues that we are debating today.
There are an amazing number of able and talented people out there who could make a contribution to our economy—people who, given the chance, could be part of the ambition stated in the Motion we are considering today, and who could help us to meet the challenges of technology, productivity and the changing nature of work. They are autistic; they are not unemployable.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for securing this debate, partly because it turned out to be so timely and partly because lifelong learning is something that I have been passionate about for more than 20 years, ever since I was Permanent Secretary of the then merged Department for Education and Employment. In many ways, lifelong learning was the very raison d’être of that merged department. In 1998 we published a Green Paper entitled The Learning Age. In the foreword the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who, regrettably, is not able to be at this debate today, said:
“We stand on the brink of a new age. Familiar certainties and old ways of doing things are disappearing. Jobs are changing and with them the skills needed for the world of tomorrow. In our hearts we know we have no choice but to prepare for this new age, in which the key to success will be the education, knowledge and skills of our people … To cope with rapid change we must ensure that people can return to learning throughout their lives”.
Those words, which I may just have had a hand in crafting, are as relevant today as they were then.
In 1998 we would have wished that by now we could look back at two decades of progress, of transforming the culture of learning in this country. The sad reality is that we cannot do that. As recently as 2016, the OECD placed the UK in the bottom rank of European and OECD league tables for skills and work-based training. Open University recruitment dropped from 260,000 in 2010 to 187,000 by 2014. Following the introduction of fees, as we have heard, part-time student numbers in HE dropped dramatically, as did adult participation in further education. Part-time enrolments in HE have declined since 2011 from 240,000 to just 107,000.
The adult skills budget has been significantly reduced, and the annual surveys undertaken by what is now the Learning and Work Institute show the same pattern of declining participation in non-award-bearing part-time courses. We have also seen the development of powerful disincentives for adults to sign up for learning, not least by restricting the support available for students taking award-bearing courses below degree level if they cannot demonstrate progression in terms of qualifications. Even in the past year, as we have heard, despite the Government’s ambitious target of having 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020, the actual numbers have reduced from 116,000 a year ago to 48,000—a reduction of nearly 60%.
This is a depressing story, the reality of which contrasts sharply with the optimistic words we heard in this Chamber just a few moments ago when the industrial strategy was launched. It is difficult not to link the lack of investment in skills development with the continuing failure to improve levels of productivity—which, let us remind ourselves, are 20% to 25% lower than in France, Germany and the US.
In economic terms, investment in lifelong learning is critical—perhaps never more so as we prepare for Brexit. As an aside, I find it disappointing that whereas this Chamber is usually full for debates on the process of Brexit, we have only eight speakers today on a subject which is critical to our success in a post-Brexit world.
Before I touch on what we might do to address what is a crisis, a catastrophe—a word that has already been used—of lifelong learning, let us remember, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester reminded us a few moments ago, that this is not just a narrow economic issue. Lifelong learning is equally important to improving the quality of people’s lives. It is critical to social cohesion and well-being, not least in a digital age. It is a way to help people to stay independent, active and engaged as they grow older in an increasingly ageing society.
What could we do to give much-needed new life to lifelong learning? I have just a few thoughts. First, as the Motion suggests, we need a comprehensive strategy, not a collection of ill-fitting initiatives. Sadly, we no longer have a merged Department for Education and Employment, but I suggest that the DfE, BEIS and the DWP together revisit lifelong learning with the key stakeholders to consider whether the various policies and initiatives are coherent—the one reinforcing the other. They should look at the incentives and disincentives in the system and the priorities for action. Instead of producing ambitious targets for the long term, they should produce milestones for the next two to three years. They should find a way to bring employers, unions, providers and non-statutory organisations such as the Learning and Work Institute to the same table—but not just to talk. They should give them real power, resource and responsibility to deliver.
Secondly, we should revisit the issue of incentives for individual learners. Sadly, the individual learning accounts fell foul of fraud and abuse, but the concept is not fundamentally flawed, and it would be much more difficult now to perpetrate the kind of fraud and abuse that we saw at the time. In Singapore, the Deputy Prime Minister recently introduced a programme called Skillsfuture, under which every Singaporean aged 25 and above will receive an initial $500 of credit, which can be used on a range of government-supported courses. It will be topped up at regular intervals, and it will not expire. In introducing that programme, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
“We must become a meritocracy of skill, not a hierarchy of grades earned early in life”.
I could not agree more.
We also need to look again with employers at how they can be enabled to invest more in the skills of their workforce. Surely we can find some way to address the practical problem of employers investing in training only to find workers leaving to join competitors. Perhaps we could consider learning sabbaticals, whereby employees earn learning opportunities after a period of employment. That may not be to everyone’s taste, but my point is that we need to think more creatively about how we tackle these issues. Perhaps we should again look to Singapore, where small and medium-sized enterprises that sponsor low-paid employees for training can recover up to 90% of the course fee, plus some absentee payroll support, and where training for the over-40s is a particular priority. In stark contrast, in Britain, the average amount of training received by workers almost halved between 1999 and 2009, and stood at less than one hour a week.
Finally, we need to look to the provider sector to redouble its efforts to engage people in lifelong learning. Universities have a vital role to play in that, as the briefing that many of us receive from Universities UK points out. I know that a number of universities are refreshing their approach to lifelong learning—Sheffield, Warwick, Leeds, Nottingham and York come to mind—but, as the University Alliance manifesto rightly suggests, we need to help at a national level by improving information, advice and guidance, by flexing the funding arrangements and by incentivising collaboration and co-investment between universities, colleges, the University of the Third Age, Citizens Advice and local learning exchange centres, incentivising collaboration locally.
As the vice-chancellor of York St John said earlier this year: “We”—the universities,
“must ensure we are creating a culture within our institutions in which lifelong learning can thrive”.
She asked the sector:
“Are we open and accessible enough? Are we giving back to our communities? Are we reaching out to connect with those who haven't considered us before?”.
These are important questions for the sector to answer if it is to play a leading part in lifelong learning.
In conclusion, can the Minister commit to produce by next summer—perhaps I am being a touch optimistic—an action plan for lifelong learning as part of the industrial strategy, one that crosses government departments, addressing and incentivising individuals, employers and providers with stretching but realistic milestones? There is no time to lose if we are to tackle the current failures.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Watson. Timing is everything—that applies to a whole range of activities—but he has certainly got that right, and I think he got the issue right as well.
I had to reflect as chair of my local primary school governing body that we are engaged in lifelong learning: we have safeguarding and e-security training courses, all my board of governors are involved in finance courses, and some of us are never going to see 21 again—so lifelong learning is taking place in a variety of circumstances. I also paused to reflect that when we talk about lifelong learning we tend to move to older age groups, but where does it start? Surely it starts with parental influence; it starts in nursery and primary schools. We know that children may not have the essential skills of literacy, numeracy—and these days, probably digital skills as well. Employers require things such as problem solving, team working and empathy, which are a platform for transferrable skills. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester referred to the interesting idea of virtue. Perhaps I have encountered it under a different word: the concept of ethics in business. We know that when it is not applied, disastrous failures have taken place.
I pay tribute to the Library for the document supplied for this debate, in which there is a mass of information. I shall cherry-pick a few bits because they are worth looking at. On health services, it states:
“Lifelong learning can enhance an individual’s capability for self-management of health (enabling healthier behaviour). The effects of lifelong learning may be seen both directly (learning to self-manage a specific illness such as diabetes for example) … Enabling people to maintain their independence for as long as possible is an intrinsic good with financial implications for society and the economy”.
However we cut it, it is a real added value and benefit to society.
Further on, page 12 has a heading:
“Social wellbeing and crime reduction”,
and refers to Unionlearn—a great activity of trade unions. It states:
“A Unionlearn/Prison Officers’ Association project promoted health capability in prisons by focusing upon healthy living, diet and nutrition with embedded literacy, language and numeracy skills. The project aimed to improve both the current health of prisoners and their post-release prospects … Individuals engaged in learning stand a better chance of changing their career path away from crime … Families, especially sons, can be given the chance to escape from the cycle of crime”.
We know how important that is. We have generations of unemployed youngsters, for whom we use the unfortunate term NEET. For one reason or another, we have failed to engage these people in positive activity. Again, it is important to remember that learning should be considered not just as something that takes place when people are in their formal school years.
The “Skills Demand” section on pages 16 and 17 of the Library document is really interesting. It states:
“39% of employees across the EU as a whole have skill levels higher than that needed to do their current job”.
That could be reflected in the UK as well.
My noble friend Lord Watson called for a comprehensive look at education as part of this debate, and he is absolutely right. I am not setting up further education against higher education, but I am seriously posing the question: is it right that we pour so much money into higher education? Look at the current debt. We are talking about billions, yet so many young people come out of university lacking the skills that employers say they need, or they cannot find employment with the skills they have. I do not think we have got this right. Of course, the original aim of encouraging young people to go into higher education was laudable; it did something about social mobility. But now it is time to see whether we are focusing our resources in the right direction.
I was interested to hear mentioned two or three times in the debate that it does not really matter if there is a drop in the number of apprenticeships and that anyway, the 3 million target is dangerous: it is quantity over quality. Those warnings should be heeded by the Government. We have had examples of very poor, short-term apprenticeships. But we are being a little bit too glib if we have had a 60% drop. I would like to see it disaggregated for a start. That would be the most important thing that could be done. There are too many worrying signals coming from employers about the apprenticeship levy—not the concept itself, but how it is applied. I have said it before. I do not expect the Minister to come up with all the answers now, but I hope that we will get a report on how the levy is operating and the concerns expressed by employers.
There is a real danger of what I call the law of unintended consequences. The levy itself is a good idea, but, as one or two people have said, if we do not get more SMEs involved in apprenticeships—the number is very low at the moment—surely we will have failed. When the Government look at the take-up of the levy and the impact on SMEs, they need to come up with some answers, or we will not solve the problem.
I always listen with great interest when the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, gives us a bit of analysis, because she has often reminded me of the law of unintended consequences on some of our previous Labour Government policies. Her point about adult apprentices is a good one. They should be at the heart of lifelong learning and at the heart of what the Government are trying to achieve. I looked at the Industrial Strategy today and was interested in the foreword. The Prime Minister said:
“It is not ambitious enough to have record jobs growth, unless those jobs are secure and delivering real growth in wages”.
I am sure we all welcome that. It is quite a challenge with a gig economy, but nevertheless the aim is right. Further on, the Prime Minister says that,
“this Industrial Strategy … will help young people develop the skills they need to do the high-paid, high-skilled jobs of the future”.
As we know from this debate, it is not just about young people—we want lifelong learning.
I turned the page and looked at what Greg Clark, the Secretary of State had to say. He referred to:
“These four Grand Challenges—in artificial intelligence and big data; clean growth; the future of mobility; and meeting the needs of an ageing society”.
Certainly in that last one, which is a fundamentally important area, lifelong learning is essential. Too often caring is seen as a low skill; it is referred to as such somewhere else in one of the reports. That is part of the problem. If we are talking seriously about involving more mature sections of our workforce in caring, we ought to be changing its image as being a low-skill activity.
A number of people referred to the question of people involvement. I congratulate the Government. Having heard policies introduced in this Chamber by not only this Government but the previous one that frankly had a smack of anti-trade unionism about them, it was good to see the Government, not only in the Budget but in their approach to retraining, refer to collaboration between the CBI and the TUC. They also gave a positive mention to Unionlearn, which I referred to previously. That has been one of the most significant contributions of the trade union movement.
Overall, I welcome the Industrial Strategy. Of course it is not a perfect document, but it will benefit by further analysis and debate. Again, my noble friend Lord Watson has made a significant contribution in setting the context in which any industrial strategy worth its name should apply. Lifelong learning has to be an integral part of that strategy.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to contribute to this debate, and I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, who has been doing an enormous amount of work on this subject. I admire him because I am still stuck in a Scottish framework of further education and adult education. He seems to have mastered the English algorithms, which takes some doing, and he demonstrated that earlier in the debate.
I cannot but agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, that having only eight speakers in a debate of this strategic, long-term significance to the nation is a little disappointing. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Watson. I think that we should collectively lobby for a longer term look, once we have had a chance to reflect on both these important documents, which have come from government today. He made a very good suggestion that we should take time—maybe before Christmas or earlier in the New Year—to look at these documents. Taken together, they are a significant piece of public policy that the House would want to come back to. The opportunity costs of Brexit are costing us dear in all sorts of ways that are hidden and not obvious.
I declare an interest in that I am a non-executive director of the Wise Group, which does job creation schemes in the north-east of England. That is in the register of interests. My interest in adult education derives almost directly from the two ad hoc committees on which I have recently served in your Lordships’ House. I first served on the ad hoc Digital Skills Committee, which was an eye-opener for me, in terms of the skill and transformation that the noble Lord, Lord Bhattacharyya, reflected on. I had no idea of the positive disruptive effect on economies that digital skills can have. That was followed up a year later when I had the privilege of joining colleagues on the Financial Inclusion Committee. The inability of the ordinary, average citizen to deal with digital skills and financial scrutiny of things like bank accounts was an eye-opener. I had no idea of the extent to which the primary and secondary education system was failing a lot of our citizens to enable them to engage and take part in society.
I have spent all my time pursuing social security and social policy areas, but I have now come to the conclusion that this is basically a question of inequality. If we cannot get our adult population into a position in which they can be active, independent and engaged, as the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, said—he captured it well—we are failing our citizens. Another instructive point that the noble Lord made was that, if his employment and education report in 1998 was setting out some of those points as priorities for the nation, it reminds us that it is not what Governments say, no matter how many documents they produce, but what they do that counts. For me, this is a question of inequality, and dealing with inequality.
From my social security perspective, I formerly believed that cash transfers would provide enough for families to be able to survive and flourish in a modern economy. I have changed my mind—we need to have literacy and numeracy and digital and financial skills, and we need to give our average citizens and households the ability to look after their own health and well-being. That is obviously failing just now, considering issues with obesity, diabetes and some of these other illnesses. This is a crucial part of dealing with inequality, along with the work that we have been doing in social security.
I remind noble Lords that universal credit—I am sure that they understand this point—introduces work progression into our social protection systems in a way that it has never done before. So we need the ability to support claimants who come into universal credit who are in work but are told that they cannot stand still in the occupations and the levels of income they are on at the moment. They are required, under threat of sanction, to make work progression through into better jobs and, eventually, into careers. My ambition, from a DWP point of view, is that every job coach in every Jobcentre Plus office rolling out universal credit could guarantee an option for a client involved in work progression to have a quality adult education place.
The real challenge is in the regional disparities, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, said—and I think that she is right. If we do not do something in some of these regions, nothing will get done, and it is not just a question of productivity but of drop-out towns and regions. I took the liberty of sending a couple of Financial Times clippings to the ministerial office, although they may not have reached the Minister’s desk yet. There has been compelling evidence from Martin Sandbu and Sarah O’Connor recently in that newspaper about the level to which some of those communities are suffering. It is not the fault of the citizens who live there. What I did not understand—I really need to learn more about it—is the effect that flows from globalisation, whereby clusters and patterns of economic activity act as magnets in cities where there are hubs, clusters, catalysts and all those other clever things. It is sucking out from some of the more regional and peripheral communities and neighbourhoods all the best young talent, who now live in cities. I suppose that is to be expected—that did not come as a great surprise. What did surprise me was the evidence that those disadvantaged areas are acting as a magnet for people who are struggling healthwise or from an education or skills point of view. So there is a double whammy—regions are losing their young talent and having to absorb medically, economically, socially and, indeed, politically, people who are struggling. You can measure that by the level of anti-depressant use. I did a pharmacy degree, and I studied these things more than most. You can tell very clearly from the map and the league table of anti-depressant prescription dispensations where those problem areas are.
My plea to the department is that we cannot just concentrate on formal qualifications and the high end. I am not saying that that is not important. People like the noble Lord, Lord Bhattacharyya, are experts on this; he is part of a world-class institution, and the Government need to recognise that and concentrate on it. I understand that, but it is equally important to look after the people who are left behind. There is evidence that is clear as anything to me that the disillusion, lack of trust and lack of hope in some of these communities, of those left behind, are expanding and increasing just as we go into a withdrawal from the European Union. We heard in the industrial strategy Statement about productivity. As a country, we are likely to be facing 10 very lean years. If it is lean just now for some of the people struggling in those remote neighbourhoods across the United Kingdom—some are in cities, but some are more peripheral, in seaside towns and the like—they will really need help. I hope that this debate will help to spur the Government on to balance the amount of resource and energy that they devote to the clusters and the hubs, as well as to the disparate areas.
The noble Lord, Lord Bichard, has a very good idea. I would support having, by next summer, what I think he called an action plan for lifelong learning, across the DWP, BEIS and the Department for Education, and involving the devolved authorities as well. That is an excellent idea, which is entirely achievable if the departments put their minds to it. We can then look at how we play the lifelong learning pilots and the digital skills for adults. The idea of lifelong accounts, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, said, have been discredited recently, is used perfectly well in other countries. All of that could be part of the mix, with an action plan by next summer which did not just focus on the winning, successful areas—they are important—but concentrated, on the basis of natural justice, on some of the communities which are really struggling in today’s circumstances and are likely to get worse unless the Government do something more.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, for securing this timely and wide-ranging debate. It is not dissimilar to a recent debate, on which I wound up, led by the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth. As the House may know, that focused on the future of work in the context of new technologies. I declare an interest as my background is in human resources in industry and the City, so I understand very well the importance to people of opportunities for learning and retraining throughout their working lives. The quality of the debate and contributions today reflects the deep importance that this House sees in lifelong learning and I am grateful to all Peers for their contributions.
I will start by providing a backdrop to give some context for our policies. The UK is the fifth biggest economy in the world. In 2016, the World Economic Forum placed the UK third in the world for technological readiness. There are record numbers in employment. The employment rate is 75.3%, the highest since comparable records began in 1971. However, we know that one of our greatest challenges is productivity. I was in the Chamber earlier today for an interesting debate on the link between employment levels and productivity when my noble friend Lord Henley read the Statement on the industrial strategy. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, raised the important question of productivity. The Government are implementing policies that will help to tackle our low productivity levels and optimise the opportunity automation provides. As announced in the industrial strategy White Paper, this includes our commitment to spending 2.4% of GDP on research and development, which could increase public and private investment by as much as £80 billion over the next 10 years. We are effecting changes to our labour market to enable new ways of working. We are improving our skills systems, including the development of a new national retraining scheme to encourage lifelong learning.
What do we mean by lifelong learning? First, it means providing opportunities for progression by upskilling and reskilling to adapt to a changing labour market. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bhattacharyya, who gave a realistic view from—if I may put it this way—the front line of the Warwick Manufacturing Group. He said that the scale of reskilling is enormous. I am always interested to hear about the progress of that group and I do not forget my most interesting visit to it several years ago. Secondly, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester said, lifelong learning ensures that those who have underachieved academically, for whatever reason, have the chance to update their skills and increase their earnings. He also highlighted the link with self-esteem and well-being. The noble Lord, Lord Bichard, spoke about the increased enrichment of people’s lives through upskilling; he is absolutely right. Thirdly, lifelong learning enables those who have been out of work to update their skills and re-enter employment. The noble Lord, Lord Young, made an interesting and important point about prisoners and the importance of their having opportunities to maximise their skills. Hopefully, this keeps them out of prison, but if they are in there it enables them to take on a meaningful role when they get out.
However, our approach must be flexible, relevant and appropriate to benefit all in society. There are two examples. One, which has not been mentioned today, is women returning to work. The female employment rate is now 70.8%, up 18 percentage points since 1971. Another is the increasing number of older workers who will be contributing to the economy. The number of people aged 50 and over is expected to reach 30 million by 2035. Thus we have set out an ambitious programme that includes a new national retraining scheme, informed by a series of career-learning pilots; a refreshed role for apprenticeships for adults in work; a review of higher-level technical qualifications; and £5 million to support people returning to work following a break caring for children or relatives.
In last week’s Budget, my right honourable friend the Chancellor made an announcement in the other place on the national retraining scheme. This will be an ambitious, far-reaching programme to address adult learning and retraining. As the noble Lord, Lord Watson, alluded to, it will be driven by a new national retraining partnership—the coming together of Government, the CBI and the TUC to set a broad strategic direction for the scheme, and to oversee its implementation. I was pleased to have this endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Young. The scheme includes a set of sector-focused and employer-driven initiatives. Starting next year, it will target immediate skills shortages in key sectors and will be fully implemented by the end of the Parliament. There will be £64 million for schemes in the digital and construction sectors. We will give individuals the best chance to gain the skills they need to progress in work, redirect their careers and secure the higher-paid, high-skilled jobs of the future.
The noble Lord, Lord Bichard, asked whether we had in mind a national career-learning action plan. The Budget set out a clear direction for our ambitious career-learning agenda through the announcement of the national retraining scheme, as I mentioned earlier. Our initial focus on construction and digital also demonstrates commitment to supporting adults to acquire the skills which are valuable to our economy now and in the future. The historic national retraining partnership will be essential in building a lifelong learning programme that really works for businesses and employees and it will be key in guiding our approach.
Underpinning the scheme, we made a commitment in the spring Budget of up to £40 million for pilots to robustly test both supply and demand-side interventions. The pilots are exploring the most efficient and effective ways to reduce the barriers for all adult learners. The first of the career-learning pilots—the Flexible Learning Fund—was launched on 31 October. Through this fund, the Government are making available up to £10 million to support projects which design and test flexible and accessible ways of delivering learning to working adults with low or intermediate skills. I look forward to returning to the House with further details of more of our pilot schemes in due course.
Alongside the national retraining scheme, we aim to ensure that technical qualifications—the new T-levels—are accessible to adults. I am pleased that there was, generally, a warm welcome for this in the House today. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester mentioned it in his speech. We have worked through the Sainsbury review recommendations on technical education. I thank in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, for her significant and insightful contributions to the review panel. Her work on parity of esteem has been of considerable value in forming our policy in this area. Accordingly, we will develop the T-level programme offer for adults, so that they have access to the same high-quality content as 16 to 19 year-olds, while recognising that many adult learners face different barriers to learning and addressing that as part of the programme development. We will shortly launch a public consultation about the implementation of T-levels, which will include issues around how best to adapt them for adult learners.
Age and experience should not be barriers to higher academic achievement either. The CBI reports that more than 75% of businesses expect to have more job openings for people with higher-level skills over the coming years. We are committed to extending the reform of technical education up to higher levels and are undertaking a review at levels 4 and 5—above A-level but below a degree.
The review was launched on 31 October. It will focus on how technical qualifications can better address the needs of learners and employers. The Government will consult widely with employers, education providers, learners and others with expertise in this area. The review forms part of the Government’s commitment to supporting routes to higher-earning technical roles and addressing the skills needs of the economy, as outlined in the Post-16 Skills Plan.
I would now like to touch on apprenticeships. There remains among some people the view that an apprentice is a teenager with a desire to learn a career for life, but I am sure noble Lords would agree that that view is out of date. Apprenticeships can be a means for everyone seeking work-based and career-enhancing learning. The noble Lord, Lord Young, asked about flexibility in the apprenticeship levy. We want to see the levy and reformed funding system bed in before considering any substantial changes, and are clear that stability in the market is key. We will continue to monitor the impact of the levy and remain open to feedback from employers and providers on how the system is working for them, but I note very strongly the points the noble Lord made.
We are committed to making sure that apprenticeships are as accessible as possible to people of all ages and backgrounds. It is now well known that we are working on achieving the 3 million apprenticeship starts in England by 2020. We have achieved over 1.1 million new starts since 2015. This includes over 500,000 starts by adults over the age of 25. The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, spoke passionately about the need to ensure that adults have the best possible opportunities to undertake apprenticeships. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, spoke about the importance of ensuring that all apprenticeships are high quality and he raised a concern about the recent numbers of apprenticeship starts. I completely agree with him about the importance of high-quality apprenticeships. We are clear that apprenticeships must be real jobs with 12 months’ training and with 20% of training being off the job, as he will know. All providers delivering training must be on the ESFA register. This ensures that high-quality apprenticeship training is provided for all apprentices. The apprenticeship levy is new, as I said earlier, and employers are using the 24 months available to them to take a considered and strategic approach to hiring apprentices. However, as I said earlier, we remain committed to delivering the 3 million starts by 2020, and up to the necessary quality.
As was mentioned earlier, we have been working hard on encouraging and engendering a so-called parity of esteem between further education and higher education. The Government have maintained funding for the adult education budget in cash terms at £1.5 billion for this year. The AEB funds colleges and providers to help adult learners overcome barriers which prevent them taking part in learning. This includes support for adults with a specific financial hardship and meeting the additional needs of learners with learning difficulties and disabilities. I was very interested in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, who spoke passionately about autism and cited an example from Surrey. There are a growing number of technical and digital companies that are better set up to take on those with autism. We want to continue to encourage more companies that can better employ them with the particular skills they have. We are committed to making a difference to the lives of all disabled people. People should be able to get the support they need, whatever their health condition or disability, and that includes those with more than one condition, with fluctuating conditions and with less common or more complex conditions. As mental health conditions and musculoskeletal disorders are the most common conditions that affect participation in progress, making sure of services for people with these conditions is a key part of our programme. We will shortly publish plans to achieve our ambition of 1 million more disabled people in employment in the UK by 2027. The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, also asked questions about pilots and updates on access by disabled students. If he will forgive me, I will write to him with an update. I think there were some questions on dates and timings.
Lastly, we need to ensure that no parts of the country are left behind. That is why the first six opportunity areas are receiving a share of £72 million to implement bespoke plans, covering everything from improving early education for two year-olds, launching new maths centres to help key stage 1 pupils excel, and supporting young people during the transition into adulthood through enhanced careers support. Talking of careers, too many adult learners have lost their way because they have been offered little or irrelevant guidance. I was interested in the views of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, on this subject. Much of his speech was focused on the important subject of social mobility. He spoke not necessarily just about adults but made some passionate points about those who are often seen to be left behind. I took note of everything that he said.
The Secretary of State has confirmed that we will publish a careers strategy later this year, with a clear focus on social mobility. We are reviewing the current careers offer for people of all ages, and the proposals in the strategy will build on the best international evidence to improve the quality and coverage of careers guidance. We are investing over £70 million this year to support young people and adults to get high-quality careers provision.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, raised a point about the decline in part-time students at university. The Office for Fair Access has asked universities to consider the different barriers mature learners may face in accessing, succeeding in and progressing from higher education, and to consider what more can be done to attract and support part-time learners across the whole student life cycle as part of their access agreements. In response to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, we acknowledge that there has been a drop in the number of part-time students, including part-time disadvantaged students, but I reassure him that the number of full-time disadvantaged students has increased overall.
I thank noble Lords once again for their expertise and contributions to this short debate. The Government have put in place a comprehensive programme of work to ensure that learners have access to inclusive—
I apologise for disrupting the flow, but I raised the issue of the importance of apprenticeships in the care industry. It is often described as low skilled, and my point was that we need to raise the skills. I am not expecting the noble Viscount to have all the answers now but I hope he will recognise the importance of that issue.
The noble Lord is correct and makes a very important point about carers. In fact, the subject of carers is often raised in this House. I reassure him that it is very much on our agenda. It is very important that we give the right level of support to carers and give them every opportunity to get the skills they need for their roles; I totally agree that if they need particular or extra skills, they must be given that support. I will reflect on Hansard afterwards and if there is a need to write to the noble Lord to give him more details about carers, I will certainly do so.
I am pleased that on the day we published the industrial strategy White Paper, we have had the opportunity to debate this important topic, for which I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Watson. We now need to provide all adults with the opportunity for a lifetime of learning to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities before us.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this fine debate. There is an old saying that we go for quality, not quantity. The quantity has not been great but the quality certainly has been of all the contributions in this debate.
I reinforce a point I made in my opening remarks that was picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood—namely, I think we will need to come back to these issues fairly soon. I suggest that we bracket both the industrial strategy and the other paper, Future of Skills & Lifelong Learning, published today by the Government Office of Science, because they clearly have a lot in common. We could do with an opportunity to have a longer debate with more noble Lords being given longer than just a few days’ notice, as happened with this debate, as was inevitably the case because of the way in which it developed. I again thank all noble Lords.
My noble friend Lord Bhattacharyya, whose experience is remarkable and who certainly brings a great deal of weight to this debate, says that the scale of reskilling is enormous, and I think that that sets the parameters for the debate—and, indeed, it is. The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, was quite right to highlight the fact, as did some other noble Lords, that apprenticeships are key. I throw her quote back at her—I hope I have got it right—“If we do not get apprenticeships right, we will not have success in improving skills”. I fundamentally agree with that. She also said that the high quality of adult apprenticeships should be at the centre of the industrial strategy, and I am very much behind that as well.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester made an important point when he said that young people will need several careers, as they face a much longer working life than their parents or grandparents had. It seems that not all employers are yet fully aware of that; to some, age is still a disincentive to employment. Reskilling and retraining more than once in any working life will become second nature—it will certainly need to be. He also made a point about the access of adults to T-levels, which, as the Minister just said, is widely accepted and necessary.
I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Touhig for the work he does and the comments he made about those on the autism spectrum. Earlier this month I met with the National Autistic Society to talk about a broad range of issues; what an impressive organisation it is in the work it does and its ability to spread knowledge and awareness of the needs of people on the autism spectrum. Of course, the same applies to many with other conditions as well. My noble friend’s point about stepping stones into a job is important. I will certainly do what I can to advance that in terms of my remit, as it is important that people have the opportunity. The figures he quoted on the percentage of those on the autism spectrum who are in employment are quite worrying and surely can be increased.
I bow to the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, in relation to his experience in helping to deliver lifelong learning. I was struck by the point that he made—that lifelong learning is not just about employability, it is about the quality of life. Of course it is. He also regretted the decoupling of education and employment, if I picked him up correctly. I can see what he means, although I do not think it is unlikely to be reversed any time soon. However, I noted that immediately prior to this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, speaking on the Statement on the industrial strategy, talked about ending the silo mentality in seeking to deliver that strategy. I very much hope the Government will follow through on that. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, will know from experience, that is often easier to talk about than to deliver—there are often even departmental rivalries. But I hope that given the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, the Government will work to overcome that. I may have missed this in the Minister’s remarks—I apologise to him if I did—but the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, suggested that an action plan should be produced on lifelong learning, partly in response to the industrial strategy. I am not sure whether the Minister responded to that but, if he did not, I think that such a plan would be a very good idea and I urge him to consider one.
My noble friend Lord Young has a great deal of experience in skills and employability. He highlighted an interesting point on the disparity in funding between higher and further education. I think that that is a problem and has been for many years. As I said in my earlier comments, funding for further education colleges has been hit harder than funding for any other sector of education over the past 10 years. I hope there will be some refocusing of resources to fit the Government’s stated intention of ensuring that people get qualifications and skills that are relevant to the needs of the economy. As many have stated, that is often not the case now. To simply get a university degree—I would never disparage that in any sense; there is always something positive in it—may not necessarily tailor people for the needs of the economy now and in the immediate future.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, commented on the fact that all my education was gained in Scotland, while now I have responsibility for education in England. I can tell him that after more than two years in the job I am still very much on a learning curve. However, I am now domiciled in London and have the benefit of having a son in school in London, so I am getting day-to-day updates on the English education system, which, as the noble Lord will know, is in many ways quite different from that in Scotland. The noble Lord talked of inequality, which is an important issue, and we talk about social mobility. The question of inequality is in many ways the thread that runs through what we have been discussing for the past hour and half. In allocating resources for training and retraining for employment opportunities, it is very much the case that a good education will almost always be the gateway to employment, and those who do not have that—perhaps from disadvantaged communities—do not have the chance to get into the workforce in the first place, far less retrain and refocus their employability. We need to bear that in mind. I therefore very much welcome the Minister’s comment that the Government are to publish a careers strategy early next year—or sometime next year; there is not much time left in this one—with an emphasis on social mobility. That is to be welcomed.
Finally, to some extent repeating a point I made earlier, a prosperous learning and earning higher education sector is needed now more than ever, not only because it increases productivity and regional skills but because it promotes social mobility. The Government should facilitate a system for adults that encourages that lifelong learning and tackles the basic skills, because the economic success of our country in the years ahead undoubtedly depends upon it.