Nick Clegg’s talk of social mobility is just words

22nd May, 2012 3:11 pm

As a former NUS president, I know the value of post-16 education. I know what role the education sector plays in not only increasing the life chances of individuals and communities but for our society and economy as a whole.

That is why Ed Miliband was right to talk yesterday about vocational and academic qualifications and the binary divide between further and higher education which if maintained, threatens to hold our country back. His words are an encouraging sign that in the face of the Coalition’s slash and burn approach, Labour is taking the lead in developing the policies to build a lifelong learning society and establish it as the bedrock of economic recovery.

Higher education receives a lot of attention because those who make policy and report on it have prior experience of university and their kids are likely to do so too. Far fewer have studied at a further education college or institution of adult education.

Indeed, it is quite telling that before scrapping EMA on the flimsiest of evidence, Michael Gove had not set foot in a further education college during his time as Secretary of State. So blinkered had he been to the potential of further education to stimulate the economy, he is missed one of the silent engines of growth and personal development which transforms lives every day, up and down this country.

Figures from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ own research show that those with further education qualifications generate around £75 billion for the economy. Meanwhile, the return on Government investment for apprenticeships works out at around £40 for each £1 spent, when taken as an individual’s first qualification at that level.

But this Government has slashed further education funding by 25% over the spending review period. They have axed EMA and put in place a postcode lottery of financial support that provides nowhere near the support young people need in order to access post-16 education. These are decisions which fly in the face of sense and threaten to do lasting damage.

They are on the cusp of introducing a higher education-style FE loans system for over 300,000 adult learners and which the sector – lecturers, students and colleges themselves – have openly opposed. It will hit those who have missed out on basic qualifications the first time round and those taking to access to university courses. In the south west, where I was born and raised, nearly 20,000 adult further education students face the prospect of taking out adult loans. If they want to move on to higher education, they face the prospect of taking out another loan to pay fees. The pathways to learning are being churned up by a dangerous haphazard ignorance of not only the transformational power of education but real people’s lives, families and communities.

It is indeed harder to climb the ladder when the rungs are further apart. But the ladder is not only being taken apart by cuts, it is being pulled up by those who are not committed to delivering educational opportunity for all.

Nick Clegg can wax lyrical all he wants about the importance of social mobility. But these are only words, and they are all he has for us. The ample evidence provided by the Government’s actions and their effects tell a different story – the austerity programme and the degradation of education overseen by the Coalition will do lasting damage people to those in and out of work, those in and out of education, those on the margin who have more potential than opportunity.

Labour is right to continue to talk about further and vocational education and its role in creating a growing, skills based economy that works for the many, not the few. Let’s now really look at jobs and skills for the future, let’s look to low carbon technology and green growth to skill a generation.

Further and vocational education offer so many opportunities for people of all ages and in all stage of life. Ed Miliband is right to make them a part of a wider strategy for social mobility and growth. As a Party for the many, not the few, we can be bold, we can offer hope and opportunity and we can build a sustainable, skills based economy for the future.

  • Browncow

    Absolutely right. About time we talked about further education as a party. Fe colleges are so well rooted in their local communities, they do such a good job and are being completely hammered by the cuts. Given where we are with youth unemployment, there will be tens of thousands of young people who need a second chance or to reskill in the coming years. Lets just hope there is an adult education system left by then. 

    • Dave Postles

      Too right, sadly, but thanks for an excellent point. 

  • Karin Charlesworth

    My mum went to university after doing an access course. She’d had kids quite young and hadn’t really even thought about education. The local college were so good in getting her back into the class room. It will be such a shame if that opporunity is cut off for other people. 

    • Dave Postles

      That’s an excellent point, Karin.  There are several ramifications, if I may.
      1 Returning to learning – for people who have missed earlier opportunities;
      2 continuous life-long learning – most often now (with the relative demise of the WEA and Adult Education) focused even more on FE colleges;
      3 as Gemma mentioned, apprenticeships – for trades (part-time release courses from SMEs) – even more important now that we expect more of the working population to be self-employed;
      4 the infrastructure of FE colleges is, by and large, pretty delapidated (in contrast with HE estate) – it has been patently neglected because of a shortage of funding.
      Such a campaign has so much poignancy – please follow it through.  It is such a wonderful antidote to Gove.  Well done, Gemma, Karin, Browncow, and treborc.

  • Dave Postles

    Thank you, Gemma.  This issue should become a mission for Labour.

  • Steven Farquhar

    yeah, baby, yeah http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90h2gLgTz5g

  • hp

    Apparently, if we scrap the pensioners’ cold weather payments we can afford to not charge university tuition fees.  I’m tempted to think that is a move in the right direction.

    • treborc1

       well you would ….

      • hp

        I am closer to receiving winter fuel payments than I am to getting a student grant! 

    • Mark

      Erm. So what you’re saying is: Take from the elderly who have no capacity to earn and give to young university undergraduates at the start of their lives and with the potential to earn fortunes. If only Robin Hood had acted along these lines he could well have ended up mates with the Sheriff of Nottingham…

      • hp

        If they earn fortunes they will pay an auful lot in tax, and pay for everything they cost and more.  If they are not from wealthy backgrounds and are put off by the debt, then they won’t go to uni, won’t earn fortunes, and won’t pay the tax.

    • Fred1348

      Why not take the hundred pounds which Cameron has earmarked for parenting vouchers to be collected from Boots (!!!) and used with Parentgym?

    • Sean

      The elderly already suffer a very poor quality of life. Without the cold weather payments, many would literally freeze to death. I say we collect tax from those that avoid paying the full sum, not only could that fund education, but would go some way to cutting the deficit.

      Less scrooge-like decisions please.

      • hp

        I believe we are paying for pensioners’ homes to be insulated.
        Having made this investment, we ought not to have to pay for extra heating.

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