The role of skills in tackling low pay

Two new reports show just how little impact economic growth is having in the places that need it most.

Two new reports show just how little impact economic growth is having in the places that need it most, writes Paul Stanistreet

There are nearly five million workers in low pay in the UK, one in five of the working population, while the majority of people experiencing poverty live in working households.

These are shocking statistics which demonstrate how little impact economic growth has had in many places and in many sections of society.

Two reports published this week highlight the extent of the low-pay challenge we face, as a society and as an economy. The first, published by the Social Market Foundation, argues that improving adult skills is key both in supporting the low paid in progressing to better-paid jobs and in boosting UK productivity. The second, from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, shows that increasing pay is only a part of the solution to in-work poverty and asks what employers can do to create not just more jobs but more ‘good jobs’.

Both reports take up themes raised in the most recent issue of Adults Learning, which explores how education and skills can tackle low pay and poverty.

Successive governments have taken skills seriously. Numerous reports have sought to put employers at the heart of the skills system (though they have usually overlooked the weakness in employer demand for higher skills, preferring to focus on supply), while the coalition has invested strongly in apprenticeships and basic skills. All parties, as the SMF acknowledges, are thinking about how to improve school education, and there has been encouraging news in the continued buoyancy in recruitment to full-time higher education among young people.

However, with 80 per cent of the 2020 workforce already of working age, there is an equally urgent need to maintain a coherent and comprehensive system of adult education and skills.

Unfortunately, the picture here is looking increasingly patchy. As figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) indicate, part-time student numbers have plummeted by almost half (46 per cent) since 2010-11. Entrants to part-time undergraduate courses other than first degrees – in the main, foundation degrees, HNDs and HNCs, typically taken up by adults – make up the majority of the decline, though there has also been a drop in part-time students taking first degrees.

Another HEFCE report, published this week, argues that a combination of economic factors, including falling public-sector employment, and policy changes (including the fees/funding regime) are responsible for the decline. Despite a clear need for a more diverse and flexible higher education system, all the signs are that the three-year, full-time model is becoming more, not less, dominant.

At the same time, we have seen huge cuts to further education, including a 20 per cent cut to the adult skills budget. Between 2010-11 and 2015-16 funding for adult skills will have reduced from £2.8 billion to £2.0 billion. The budgets for community learning and offender learning have also seen real-term reductions.

Taken together, these figures pose a significant threat to the overall coherence of a system which ought to be providing opportunities for adults to access education, at every level and in every place, throughout their lives. As funding cuts bite and courses close, adults are likely be faced with an inconsistent and incoherent service, with substantial gaps in some areas of provision, depending on location – not what we need to if we are to rise to the economic and social challenges we face.

These issues are, in general, under-reported, reflecting the low status accorded them in the media and by politicians (Vince Cable is a notable exception). They are nevertheless of critical importance, particularly if we are to address the problems of low pay and working poverty, as both this week’s reports demonstrate.

It is clear that we need more partnership between providers and employers, and more incentives both for providers to offer provision flexible enough to fit in with adults’ lives and for employers to adopt more high-value, high-productivity economic models in order to stimulate demand for higher-level skills.

Unless we can ensure a ladder of educational opportunity, with no rungs missing, supported by excellent information, advice and guidance, for adults and young people alike, the kind of growth that, in the words of the JRF, ‘lifts all boats’, will continue to prove elusive.

Paul Stanistreet is a journalist and editor specialising in adult education. He is the editor of Adults Learning

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