The Lifelong Education Commission welcomes the publication of yesterday’s Autumn Statement. Against the backdrop of the surge in inflation, ongoing market uncertainty, and the looming prospect of a record-breaking recession, urgent steps are needed to stabilise the UK economy. But short-term stability cannot come at the cost of laying the foundations for longer-term sustainable growth.
Skills training and education, accessible to all those who want it, whenever and wherever they need it, are the cornerstone of future productivity and growth. In this context, we are pleased that the Chancellor has placed a stronger education system at the heart of the Government’s vision of economic recovery, and we welcome the appointment of Sir Michael Barber to review the Government’s skills reform programme. We agree that all school leavers must be given the skills they need to succeed in the 21st-century economy, and we support the additional £2.3bn investment pledged for the schools budget as well as the protection of the R&D budget.
But we are disappointed that the measures announced in the Autumn Statement fail to extend this level of support to post-18 education as well. The UK is facing a new trend of growing labour shortages as workforce participation has begun to drop off after a decade of steady increases. Shoring up workforce participation relies on improved matching between employment needs and people’s existing credentials and capabilities.
This means a significant investment in high-quality, carefully-tailored local careers and learning advice services in ‘left behind’ communities. It also means giving tertiary education providers the financial and regulatory support they need to develop innovative vocational and research qualifications at level 4 and above—adding real autonomy and bite to the university-led cluster zones announced in the Statement. Together, these can provide those out of work with a pathway to employment in the UK’s key growth industries.
At a time of soaring rents, mortgage and debt repayments, energy and utility bills, the Government must not force individuals to take on more debt to gain the education and skills they need. Learners need help to carry the cost of upskilling, with grants for learning and maintenance targeted especially at those living in productivity ‘cold spot’ areas. Businesses also need stronger support to offer their workers attractive ‘on-the-job’ retraining and upskilling opportunities. We urge the Government to introduce a ‘skills tax credit’ alongside the R&D tax credit, and to reform the apprenticeship levy into a ‘skills and learning levy’. Both are vital to incentivising businesses to invest in their own workforces, and giving workers the chance to convert their accumulated experience into career-boosting technical qualifications.
The Government must do more to invest in workers and learners of all ages and career stages in every corner of the UK. The measures announced in the Autumn Statement may be the start of restoring the UK’s economic credibility. Yet they fall short of the key fiscal injections into education needed to return the economy to long-term prosperity. We look forward to working constructively with the new ministerial team at the Department for Education to advance the case for greater tertiary education investment, to help effectively implement and build on the ambitious lifelong education reforms already underway.