Says Michael Davis, Managing Director of CFE
As rising prices in fuel and basic commodities have dominated the news headlines over the summer commentators looking for a new angle have gone back to the oil crisis of 1970s as a means of comparison. In the 1970s the UK government sought to control the inflationary effect of rising oil prices by setting ceiling prices for basic goods and services and through the extensive nationalised industries of the day the wage increases. Listening to a recent radio archive it all sounded quite quaint as the Minister read out what the price of bread and milk would be and by how much the wages of workers in specific sectors would be allowed to rise.
It is quaint because as history has borne out the idea that any one nation state in a global economy can plan, predict and control prices is the post industrial equivalent of King Canute’s call to hold back the incoming tide. Roll forward to the present day and Government is only too keen to point out that the current weakening economy lies in global forces beyond its control.
Take a moment to review the written evidence submitted to the Innovation, Universities, Science & Skills Select Committee and reflect on who (or how many organisations) may be playing the modern day equivalent of the 1970s Prices and Incomes Board for vocational skills? For those not seeing the link, think it through, in vocational skills we set targets for participation (segmented by age), levels of qualifications, ever increasing granulation of what type of learning individuals should be doing, complex funding methodologies - which in effect represent price controls, an so on. The system acts as if from the centre the future economic skill needs can be determined and output finely tuned to meet future needs. What is worse, as best my economic history serves me, there was just one Prices and Incomes Board, whereas for skills the role of strategic planner as been empowered to exist at just about every spatial and sectoral dimension that you can possibly imagine.
Yet at the same time arising from the Leitch Review of Skills there is now a real determination to create a demand led employment and skills system which is responsive to the needs of employers and individuals. The current result is a recipe of muddled thinking where the system is ‘demand led’ and employers do have a choice so long as it is in line with Treasury targets, the priorities of a Sector Skills Council, region or sub-region (some or all may or may not apply). And to be specific ‘demand’ isn’t in the elementary economics definition of both a want and willingness to pay - a want is sufficient, public funding will take care of the bill.
So over the last 30 years what some Governments have learnt is the value of investing in effective regularity frameworks and allowing the emergence of strong and competitive institutions that can seek to mitigate and dampen the excesses of global storms. The same lesson is there for vocational skills, we need an effective regulatory framework which assures quality, and ensures choice and responsiveness, within which self determining mission driven institutions can emerge. It offers an alternative to the current narrative of creating ‘employment and skills systems’ which sounds like a post modernist description of planning and which ultimately seeks to reduce the role of FE Colleges to that of ‘provider’ eroding (or ignoring) their value as community assets.
Michael Davis is the Managing Director of CFE, Chair of Governors of Leicester College and Chairman of Lastolite.