Our society – and our labour market – is changing. To keep pace, the UK’s vocational and educational training (VET) system is in dire need of an overhaul. In partnership with Professor Chris Winch (King’s College London), Edge has hosted a series of vocational philosophy debates, including an exploration of Vocational Education and Training (VET) and the social partnership between colleges, employer associations, trade unions, government, regional and local authorities, educational bodies and the third sector. On June 29, we welcomed several expert speakers to explore this issue further, specifically looking at VET and social partnership at the institutional, regional and national levels.
Previous contributors to this topic, Labour peer Lord Maurice Glasman and Norman Crowther (National Official for Post-16 Education from the National Education Union) kicked off the debate. Summarising their past discussions, they highlighted the importance of civil society in balancing state and market as fields of power and influence.
Bringing context to the UK’s VET situation, we heard from our friend and colleague Hermann Nehls (Former Head of VET, German Trade Union Confederation). VET in Germany is considered world-leading. However, Hermann explained, this was hard-won. Labour unions in 1960s Germany fought tooth and nail for the standardisation of VET practices and qualifications. The country’s resulting Vocational Training Act (1969) is a compromise between state, business and trade unions that underpins Germany’s VET system to this day. No such legislation exists in the UK.
Professor Ellen Hazelkorn (BH Associates) recently conducted a review of post-compulsory education in Wales. Offering the devolved perspective, she argued that VET is too often associated with secondary level learning. Increasingly, however, vocational roles require higher-level skills. She argued that, in regional economies, those with greater technical know-how will become vital for developing new products and services in the future. Devolved, tertiary and higher-level VET are therefore core to building sustainable communities, especially in non-urban areas.
Norman confirmed this view, sharing his belief that FE colleges have drifted from their local and civic ethos since the 1990s. Market drivers have distorted their place-based strategies. Nevertheless, college learners, he said, still tend to work in local contexts. A renewed approach to labour for the 21st century, then, requires a frank discussion about the type of institution that can resolve these cultural and civic tensions. Like Ellen, he argued that place-based policies must play a role in any future social partnership.
We then heard from Jon Cruddas MP, author of The Dignity of Labour. From 1997-99, Jon was an industrial relations liaison at Downing Street, working closely with trade unions and on industrial policy. A strategic failure of the time, he believes, was the rejection of a stakeholder model of VET in favour of the knowledge-based economy. This was incorrectly premised on the idea that 8 out of 10 future jobs would require a degree. The solution, he argues, is a pluralist industrial approach to VET and social partnership. This necessitates reopening traditional labour debates around collective bargaining, trade unions, training infrastructures, labour law reforms, and so on. These are difficult discussions, but it’s time, he argued, to push back against those in government who resist having them.
Iain Murray (Senior Policy Officer, TUC) said that the social partnership debate can’t be divorced from the state of collective bargaining. While he believes the last Labour government made some positive contributions – with initiatives like Sector Skill Councils – there was less progress on harder battles to make training part of the collective bargaining agenda. While applauding the work of devolved powers (e.g. the GLA and MCAs) and recommendations from the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, he said the current state of affairs on skills social partnership working is broadly poor. The government’s recent Skills for Jobs white paper, for example, did not refer to unions at all, speaking only of employer collaboration.
Closing up, Ann-Marie Bathmaker (Professor of Vocational and Higher Education, University of Birmingham) highlighted Birmingham as a case study of the issues facing VET in local contexts. Birmingham has two large FE colleges and five universities. It has around 44,000 (mostly small) businesses. Many third sector organisations also provide standalone training. However, for FE colleges, acquiring funding is the top priority. This leads to a narrow culture of competition, creating a complex climate for collaboration. A far wider understanding is needed, Ann-Marie argued, of the organisations involved in building regional social partnerships that are effective and sustainable. Crucially, this must include the oft-overlooked third sector.
These are just a few of the different perspectives from a fascinating and wide-ranging academic debate. Nevertheless, some common themes emerged. Firstly, expanded representation of governance at the college level needs to be complemented with governance at the level of higher local authorities such as metropolitan councils to ensure co-ordination of provision and to prevent unnecessary rivalry. Secondly, these arrangements must apply at all policy levels, from curriculum and qualifications to awards and workplace training. Finally, effective VET cannot be centralised and there needs to be an effective division of labour between national, regional and local levels. As we jointly tackle the snowballing challenges facing the 21st century labour market, collaboration, not competition, is key.
Edge previously hosted vocational philosophy debates on the role of trade unions, work-based learning and qualifications and assessment.