Skills and training policies reviewed

Over the two years since the Labour government was elected to office in May 1997, there have been a number of key developments in skills and training policies in the UK, including a new statutory training entitlement for young workers, the University for Industry, "individual learning accounts" and a renewed role for trade unions in training policy.

Since coming to power in May 1997 (UK9704125F), the Labour government has placed a strong emphasis upon skills policies. The government sees "upskilling" not only as an answer to problems of economic competitiveness and the UK's generally poor record on productivity (UK9902182F), but also as a means of engendering greater social inclusion and cohesion. The main thrust of the government's skills policies over the past two years has centred on the education system, with further reform of the national curriculum in schools, a policy of "naming and shaming" schools that are seen to be failing, additional growth in student numbers in further and higher education, and an increase in educational spending. In the field of training, the scope and scale of changes has been more limited, but many of the developments here have significant implications for the social partners. Here we provide an overview of the most significant of these developments as they relate to the employed workforce (as distinct from the range of measures being pursued under the banner of "welfare to work" which aim to help unemployed people back into work via jobs, education, training or work experience).

Statutory training entitlement for young workers

Marking a break with the "voluntarist" approach to training adopted under the previous Conservative administration, the government has introduced a legally-backed entitlement for employees aged between 16 and 17 to take paid time off from work to study or train. This right will apply to young people who are in jobs that do not offer them training that would lead to a particular standard of achievement in terms of a vocational qualification. This standard has yet to be set, but is expected to be at the level of a National Vocational Qualification level 2 award or its equivalent.

Enforcement of this measure would be via the employee complaining to an employment tribunal that they have been refused paid time off. The expectation is that this new right will come into effect in autumn 1999. Estimates vary as to how many employees might be affected by this right, but figures of over 100,000 young people are probably broadly correct.

University for Industry

Highlighted in the Department for Education and Employment's 1998 green paper on "lifelong learning" (UK9804115F) as a flagship initiative, much is expected of the University for Industry (UfI). After an initial pilot project in the North-East of England, UfI was established in February 1999 as a limited company with government backing and is currently in the process of recruiting staff and developing its marketing and service strategies. It is based in Sheffield. The UfI aims to establish a new vehicle for promoting and facilitating access to learning in the UK and is expected to utilise new learning technologies - such as the Internet, CD-ROMs and computer-based training (CBT) - in order to facilitate the development and dissemination of flexible, high-quality learning at low cost. Its intended client group is the entire adult population and the entire business community.

The UfI will not be a learning provider in the traditional sense - for example it will not employ teachers or lecturers or produce its own learning materials, but will instead act as a marketing umbrella, market-maker and information broker, and facilitator for learning opportunities developed by a national network of existing learning providers. This network is expected to encompass the education sector, national and local government, employers and trade unions. At present, it is in the process of setting up a network of learning centres. These could be the training centre of a private company, or based in a local library. The aim is for local people to be able to drop in to use CBT equipment and access other learning resources and information.

Individual learning accounts

There are many areas where there is continuity between the training policies of the previous Conservative government and those of "New Labour". One is a continuing emphasis upon the responsibility of the individual to invest in and manage their own "upskilling" in order to ensure their "employability" in a more flexible and fast-changing labour market. Individual learning accounts (ILAs) are the new device intended to help this to happen.

The accounts are meant to be individual savings funds or accounts which give adults the opportunity to save towards funding their own education and training. The government's target is to achieve 1 million ILA holders by April 2002. Subsequently, ILAs will be available to all adults (with no government contribution) but those using them will attract discounts on eligible education and training provision. For each of the first 1 million accounts, the government is giving GBP 150 to each holder, provided that they first contribute GBP 25 of their own money. Employers will also be encouraged, though not compelled, to contribute to their employees' ILAs and such employer contributions will generally be deductible from taxable profits.

ILAs are still at the pilot stage (which has recently been extended until April 2000) and many details of how they will operate remain unclear. Much emphasis has been placed on the use of "smart-card" technology to operate the accounts, but how these would be deployed and which financial institutions will be willing to operate ILAs remains to be decided.

A new role for trade unions

One area of sharp discontinuity with the previous government's policies comes in a renewed role for trade unions in training policy. Under the Conservative government, trade unions were afforded a very limited presence on training policy bodies, but only at the invitation of employers. Although this situation severely limited the direct influence that unions could exert over policy formation, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and some member unions (for example, the public sector UNISON) started to develop new initiatives on skills. The TUC launched a campaign on bargaining for skills which encouraged unions to use workplace collective bargaining to secure employer commitment to more and better training provision. At the same time, UNISON developed, in partnership with employers, a "return to learn" programme aimed at involving adult workers in traditionally low-skilled jobs to return to some form of structured learning.

It is partly upon the strengths of these developments that the new role for unions in training has been built. Change has come on a number of fronts. First, efforts have been made to involve the TUC and individual trade unions actively in the delivery of initiatives such as UfI and ILAs. For instance, it is expected that unions will: help market UfI to members; ensure union representatives have the ability to help members access UfI services; set up joint TUC/UfI access points at union offices, colleges and TUC centres for the unemployed; and develop a TUC/UfI facility for trade union education programmes. In support of this, the TUC has been awarded money from the European Social Fund (via ADAPT) to run a two-year project which will pilot union approaches to the UfI as outlined in a TUC report, Union gateways to learning (see below).

A second area for change has been direct government funding from the Department for Education and Employment to trade unions to establish a range of small-scale projects to promote learning in the workplace. An initial allocation of GBP 2 million was given to this "union learning fund" and a further GBP 6 million was added to this in October 1998.

Finally, the TUC has further developed its policies towards education, training and learning, and in the Union gateways to learning report published in 1998 outlined its vision of the provision of learning opportunities as a major service which unions can offer to their members. The aim is widen participation and to help create a "learning society" in the UK.


There are elements of continuity and discontinuity with the previous administration's approaches in the Labour government's training policies for the employed. Although a statutory element has crept in with the statutory right for young people to paid time off for training, the government's training strategy remains essentially voluntarist and talks in terms of voluntary partnerships rather than compulsion and legal rights and duties. From the social partners' perspective, the biggest change has been an enlarged role for the unions.

Most of the government's hopes for radically improving the UK's relatively poor record on adult training rest on its two flagship initiatives - UfI and ILAs. It is already clear that the pathways to success for both of these schemes may not be entirely clear.

Evaluation of the UfI's pilot operations in the North-East suggest that those aspects of UfI's work aimed at learning in the workplace will require considerable investment of time and effort to operate successfully. The evaluation indicated that development of customised, employer-focused learning materials had been slow and limited, and that smaller firms appeared to lack awareness of, and interest in, UfI. It is also clear that the expectation being placed on UfI's ability to utilise computer-based training, the Internet and CD-ROM technologies to deliver adaptable, low-cost, customised training to companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, is open to some question. A recent survey by the Institute of Personnel and Development suggests that many training professionals are extremely doubtful about the effectiveness of new technology-based training methods, scoring them far below traditional methods such as on-the-job training and coaching and "mentoring".

ILAs and their emphasis upon individuals boosting their own skills are also not unproblematic. Some commentators have argued that ILAs represent a policy of last resort, in that they are largely the product of employers not acting in the way that policy makers had hoped. One difficulty with passing responsibility for "upskilling" to individuals is that it requires them to "second guess" their employer's and broader labour market demand for skills with little in the way of reliable information or guidance currently available to structure their choices. Moreover, early evaluation work on ILAs indicates that many employers, especially small employers, may be reluctant to contribute to ILAs and that companies would prefer to commit any additional training expenditure to their own job-specific skills programmes.

Finally, a comparison of the financial resources being devoted to UfI and ILAs with the vocational education and training initiatives of the mid-1980s reveals that relatively limited resources are being deployed to support wide-ranging ambitions. For instance, less than GBP 50 million of UK central government expenditure has been earmarked to support the start-up of UfI, which is supposed eventually to become self-supporting, and GBP 150 million of reallocated existing money has been set aside to support ILAs. This scale of spending is in marked contrast to some of the earlier "flagship" vocational education and training programmes embarked upon by the previous administration - for example, central government spending on the Youth Training Scheme and subsequent Youth Training programme in the years 1983 to 1992 amounted to GBP 7.86 billion. The expectation is that the new initiatives can use relatively limited sums of public money to leverage much greater voluntary contributions, both from individuals and from their employers. Whether such expectations, at least in relation to employers, prove to be realistic is a moot point, particularly in terms of changing the views of those which are currently confirmed non-trainers. (Ewart Keep, SKOPE)

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