Successive government ministers have missed their ambition for employer-supported higher level qualifications to become a major part of the skills system because of failings in the policy process, according to a new report by former Cabinet Minister John Denham MP.
John Denham, who is a Professorial Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs at LSE, concludes:
- government business departments have lacked a good understanding of how employers take decisions about supporting higher level skills
- the limited academic evidence on employer decision-making has not been effectively utilised or influential on policy
- support for higher level skills and education was always a second-order priority for government, providers and employers.
He proposes the formation of an Academic and Policy Council to advise Ministers and to identify future policy choices and necessary research on higher skills.
In the report, Professor Denham also outlines how a ‘supply side’ skills strategy, focused on targets for qualifications gained, was adopted without explicit ministerial consideration of alternative approaches. The pursuit of targets, together with interventions by other departments, including the Treasury, Cabinet Office and Downing Street, had a number of perverse consequences including:
- limited impact on productivity despite large numbers of qualifications being awarded
- educational opportunities narrowed
- a training system that aligns less well with employer needs.
The roundtable discussions and interviews which contributed to the report underlined the complex set of decisions facing employers who might support higher level training.
On this point Professor Denham said:
'…it is hard to see how we can have expected to develop effective policy without a good understanding of how employers take these decisions.'
He concludes that government engagement is limited to employers who are already committed to training, with almost no knowledge about those who are not.
The Apprenticeship Levy
The report does not assess current policy, but highlights similarities with past policy making.
‘In the past, key financial decisions have been taken by the Treasury. It is Treasury policy that has driven the Levy.
‘In the past, financial incentives and targets have created perverse outcomes. The new system has targets and huge financial incentives for levy-paying employers and providers.
‘In the past, targets have narrowed the range of support for employers when the need was for greater diversity. In the new system, only one type of training is supported.’
Professor Denham added:
'I would have liked to introduce a training levy, but this report highlights some of the challenges ahead.’
John Denham undertook the research as a Professorial Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs at LSE with support from the Association of Colleges.
John Denham is a Professorial Research Fellow of the IPA. From 1992 until 2015 he served as the Member of Parliament for Southampton Itchen. He held a variety of Ministerial posts, including Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
Read the Employer support for Higher Level Skills report.
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