Britain’s endless skills problems: why academics and policy works need to communicate

Francis Green

The OECD and the Institute for Public Policy Research came together this week to launch complementary reports on Britain’s long-term skills problem and what should be done about it. The event unfurled in august surroundings, at the offices of JP Morgan, in the old hall of what used to be the City of London School. Both reports were looking at an uphill task. Britain’s productivity has stagnated for the last decade, while wages have been coming down in real terms. Britain’s skills problems have been around for much longer. The government’s policy for addressing this is embodied in its Industrial Strategy, of which skills policy is one of ten ‘pillars’. This is where schools, FE colleges and universities come in.

The IPPR report identifies three problematic aspects of Britain’s skills system:

  • skills produced are insufficiently valued and utilised in the workplace;
  • the lack of high-quality vocational training and education provision; and
  • a failure to tackle regional and social inequalities.

It is not hard to substantiate these claims. For example, Britain has one of the most unequal distributions of core skills – maths, literacy and problem-solving – among young people, compared with other countries. This fact has been known for some time and was strongly evidenced by the OECD’s surveys of adult skills in 2011/12. I0E’s research at its Llakes Centre in 2015 dissected this pattern, finding that high skills inequality was a characteristic feature of England and other English-speaking countries.

While the OECD’s report is mainly preoccupied with skills imbalances, it shares several points with the IPPR analysis, including the need for some sort of policy to generate the demand for high-skills. The IPPR’s proposed policy for demand creation centres on the foundation of a Productivity Commission, from a merger of the Institute for Apprenticeships with the Productivity Council. The OECD would like to see a ‘workplace innovation programme’, in the mould of those introduced in recent decades in Scandinavia. This would “involve providing organisations with expert help to reconfigure work organisation, job design and production processes and technologies to enhance their capacity to engage in workplace innovation” (p.74). While they were not the focus of the publicity surrounding Monday’s launch, I like very much and recommend these parts of the two reports; I hope that they do not get forgotten. A couple of years ago, my co-authors Alan Felstead and Duncan Gallie and I proposed something similar with a focus on job quality.

Both reports are good, but I came away from the launch with a sense of déjà vu. I’m usually an optimist, but it was depressing to see so many of the same issues and problems being discussed as in the 1990s. One journalist, from the floor, remarked that he had made a TV programme on the skills problem during the 1980s, and could not see how things had changed since then. True, there is perhaps now a greater realisation on the part of policy-makers and influencers that Britain’s problem has been as much a problem of low demand for skills, as low supply. We have the UK Commission for Employment and Skills – whose disappearance the OECD report clearly regrets – to thank for that. 

But meanwhile the skills problem has arguably deteriorated, and skills shortages could become acute in the immediate post-Brexit era. The fact (unearthed by Llakes research) that the volume of ongoing training fell by about a half in the period from the mid-1990s up to 2012 is noted in the OECD report, and the need to stimulate lifelong learning is recognised by both them and the IPPR. The latter propose a return to credits for learning – a putative improvement to the ill-fated ‘Individual Learning Accounts’ which fell victim to mass fraud and were abandoned in the early 2000s in England, and only later revived in Scotland.

Reflecting on the historical persistence of our problems, it may be that a neo-liberal approach to policy, and a short-term policy orientation, have been partly to blame. And with the penchant for policy-tinkering that we are familiar with in Britain’s education and training system, it is not surprising if our policy-makers hardly realise some of the time that they are trying to re-invent the wheel, rather than attempting to figure out why the wheel came off last time it was used. To be fair, the IPPR writers do reflect on the regulation problem that plagued individual learning accounts last time they were tried.

But perhaps also some of the blame for institutional forgetting lies in the barriers between us academics and the policy world. Academics tend to think long-term, and their papers and books address the issues of an era. You would have thought, then, that the substantial reams written by academics over the last 20 years on Britain’s skills problems, especially those many writers who have emphasised the need to focus on demand as well as supply, would have been helpful to the IPPR report-writers. Yet, out of the 110 references used as the basis for their report, strikingly few are by academics, the very people who think long term. And not one is a refereed journal article, that is, a paper that has been independently quality-checked for their scientific accuracy by an editor and usually at least two anonymous referees.

These two reports are not unusual. It seems that thinktanks, policy-makers and consultants exist in a separate world, liberally citing each other’s works, but missing out on the wisdom of long-term thinking academics. Meanwhile academics often do likewise: the lack of communication across the academic/policy-world invisible barrier is of course also the fault of us academics, at least part of the time. If in the past the failure to inter-communicate could be attributable to the time it takes, there is now no real excuse: internet search technologies have put paid to that.

Whoever’s to blame, I cannot help thinking that it would be more difficult to forget the past if more academics were involved in these kinds of reports. And perhaps, with a better realisation of why things did not work out for Britain’s skills policies in past decades, we could be more optimistic about getting it right this time.