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Alison Wolf Lecture – Wednesday 26th June

Over the past 15 years, Baroness Professor Alison Wolf has had a major impact on the shape of England’s Tertiary Education sector.

In 2011, her Review of Vocational Education introduced Study Programmes for all 16–19-year-old students. In 2015 her report on "Fixing a Broken Training System" heralded the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy system. In 2016, "Remaking Tertiary Education" recommended the Lifelong Learning Entitlement and the introduction of Higher Technical Qualifications. She was also a member of Sir Phillip Augar's 2019 Post-18 Review Panel and was the main author of the chapter on Further Education.

In the context of the debates currently raging about what the next government should do about university and college funding, her chosen topic for the inaugural LEI Summer Lecture on 26th June – by serendipity just a week before the General Election – is a fascinating one: "Why Don't Employers Spend More on Training?"

A series of reports – for example, from the Learning & Work Institute in 2022, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Institute for Employment Studies in 2023, and most recently the New Economics Foundation in 2024 – have highlighted the fact that employer investment in training has fallen by an estimated 28% over the past decade. Workers in UK firms now receive an average of only six days training a year, and a big chunk of that is focused on basic induction training and health and safety. The UK is already behind competitor countries in the level of investment in workforce training and is falling further behind.

The apprenticeship levy system that Alison Wolf proposed has not filled the gap, although it’s important to note that the government only implemented a modified version of her idea. Many employers have struggled to make use of their levy allocation, the overall number of apprentices has fallen steeply, and since the introduction of Higher and Degree Apprenticeships in 2015 the numbers of young apprentices taking their first steps into employment has plummeted while the number of older mid-career apprentices has rocketed. There has been a growing swell of calls for the levy system to be made far more flexible, many of them from leading employers and employer representative bodies.

The question Alison Wolf is asking is therefore of critical importance to all of us in the Tertiary Education sector. Bringing her expertise to identify the factors behind the decline in employer investment will provide a framework for identifying potential solutions to the problem. If we can find a way of encouraging employers to spend more on training it may ease the growing financial strains of a post-16 funding system where the cost is predominantly shared by the taxpayer and, for higher education students, through the student loan system. The next government, whatever its composition, will undoubtedly be taking a great deal of notice. Given her remarkable track record of influencing successive governments, when Alison Wolf speaks, we should all pay close attention.

Alison Wolf is the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London and sits as a cross-bench peer in the House of Lords.


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