Poor outcomes for young people impose economic and social costs not just on students but wider society. Skills shortages hamper UK competitiveness, productivity and wage growth.[1] There is a particular challenge with basic literacy and numeracy skills among young people, as well as shortages in digital skills, intermediate skills, and higher technical skills.113

Together these point to an education system that is not necessarily equipping workers with the skills required by the labour market. Research consistently indicates several key challenges for post-18 education: the balance of routes across further and higher education; funding; participation and access; quality and value for money.

Overall assessment

The Conservative party policy is notable for its lack of detail on any of the pressing priorities facing the Higher Education sector. Its focus instead is on improving adult skills, which is in any case a higher priority than reducing tuition fees if the objective is to improve education and skills. This is by far the single biggest resource cost in the Conservative manifesto after NHS commitments, yet remains a less generous lifelong learning policy than either that pledged by the Liberal Democrats and especially Labour.

The Labour party’s single most costly education policy is to abolish tuition fees and restore maintenance grants. Given that higher-earning graduates would be the main beneficiaries and that HE participation has continued to rise despite the tripling of tuition fees in 2012, this appears to be a poorly targeted policy which would have no impact on education quality. It could, however, help address the steep decline in part-time student numbers. Labour’s plans to reform admissions could hold more promise in improving access, whilst acknowledging most of the HE participation gap is explained by prior attainment in school.

Like the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats plans in relation to HE are scant on detail, with the exception of restoring maintenance grants. This suffers from the same issues as Labour. The proposal is less costly as it does not include part-time and below degree-level students, though these are groups whose numbers have sharply declined in recent years and for whom more targeted support could be beneficial. But along with the Green Party’s pledge to abolish fees and restore grants, all three parties’ HE plans could, in reality, turn out to be far more costly if they cause a spike in student numbers.

The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all pledge more funding for further and adult education. This is welcome in the context of pressing skills shortages at intermediate and higher technical levels, and the marked funding gap with higher education. Given the evidence on previous adult education programmes, how these policies are actually designed, monitored and regulated will be critical in determining their success and final cost. The institutional capability must also be there: provision must be high quality, delivered by institutions which can respond effectively to changing labour markets, and serve a highly diverse population. The overall impact on the skills gap is hard to predict. If uptake is strongest among those adults who are already the most qualified, this risks widening, rather than narrowing, the skills gap.

The Brexit party’s one post-18 commitment is to abolish interest on student loans. This would not support the lowest earning graduates who do not currently earn enough to repay their loans with interest, whilst shifting the cost burden towards taxpayers.

[1] Industrial Strategy Council, ‘UK Skills Mismatch 2030’, (October 2019)

 

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