Skills, Skills, Skills: levelling up and hardship denial at the Conservative conference

With the dust settling on the Conservative Party conference in Manchester this week, there has been considerable reflection in all quarters. There was no indication of policy on university funding, equality or widening access. Indeed, the emphasis appeared to be on steering students away from universities to be attracted by the ‘skills’ agenda that dominated the education debate. Levelling up remained ill defined and confused. It appears to be a nebulous regional investment plan backed by a business led education agenda geared to more skills. The realities of rocketing costs, inflation, and a financial crisis for the least advantaged people and families, were swept away as of little consequence.  But the upcoming budget and spending review on the 27th October may inject a dose of reality as we adjust to harder times. There may be trouble ahead.

Leading from the side-lines.

With a slogan borrowed from the Biden campaign in 2020, Boris Johnson continued his metaphoric rise to fame on Wednesday (full text here). His strategy seemed to be one of cheering on the country from the benches, even if the team lose badly. But he only demonstrated that he is a very entertaining after dinner speaker. That was about all. When the guests woke up on Thursday, there was a distinct hangover. Things no longer seemed funny in the cold light of day.  Even in the hall there were signs that not all delegates were happy with the speech from their leader that lacked substance or policy.  The bombastic levity was amusing, but it was not appropriate with the UK in the middle of a major crisis.  Energy costs were rocketing as he spoke. Food and fuel shortages are persisting and there are major gaps in the labour market. Self-inflicted was the damage from record tax levels and benefit cuts. The impact on families and education will fall hardest on the least advantaged. This is not levelling up, it is a denial of inconvenient ‘truths’ and stamping down.

Losing their way.

The conference did not start well from the outset for the Conservatives. They began with the tweet ‘we’re on the way to Manchester’ on Saturday. Boris Johnson was depicted as boarding a LNER train. Not only the wrong train, but also the wrong station in London. No wonder ‘the North’ is a mystery to the government. However, he finally got there (via Leeds and a trans Pennine train perhaps). His keynote speech disappointed and was more aspirational than substantial on policy. Indeed, the only clear policy was to offer more pay for teachers. Even this was not new and was a lesser offering from 2019 that was abandoned a year ago (TES 13th October 2020 ‘End of payments worth up to £9k extra for new teachers’). The critics lined up.

The brutal verdict.

Business leaders were fast to react on Thursday in condemning the lack of policy displayed. The Times called it ‘Entertaining Boosterism’ and led the ‘business backlash’ criticism with the BBC media coverage adding ‘Build back Banter’. Other versions spread fast. Ouch!

It was a brutal take-down that spread across many other observers as well as the media. Free-market champions, the Adam Smith Institute were the most brutal in condemning the rhetoric as “bombastic but vacuous and economically illiterate”. The right-facing Telegraph veered sharply to the left reporting that the Federation of Small Businesses thought that “Labour, and not the Conservatives, are the only party with a “pro-small business policy”.  It seems the echoes of Keir Starmer’s more substantive offering, and description of Johnson as ‘a trivial man’, were still resonating around the country (see also TEFs 2nd October 2021 ‘Higher education, fees loans, and the Labour conference’).

Levelling up.

The confusion around what this means in practice continued.  Michael ‘Dancing Queen’ Gove, now the levelling up minister, made a stab at it with “four things”. These were, “Strengthen local leadership”, “Raise living standards”, “Improve public services” and “Give people the resources necessary, to enhance the pride they feel in the place they live”.  However, this simply led to more confusion since you cannot heat homes with pride or eat it.

The confusion was compounded by Boris Johnson’s attempt in his speech, starting with ‘Gray’s Elegy’ and then dragging a confused version of the ideas of early 20th century social philosopher, Vilfredo Pareto, “from the cobwebbed attic” of his memories”.  The socialist ideals of Pareto would have been more comfortable being debated at the Labour Party conference. But Johnson ploughed on regardless, stressing that “talent genius flair imagination enthusiasm everywhere in this country all of them evenly distributed”. This presumably meant geographically distributed and not socially distributed, a minor point perhaps. Then he added that “levelling up means fighting crime, putting more police out on the beat as we are and toughening sentences”.  It was a total mess.

How this might be paid for was not mentioned by Gove or Johnson. With Chancellor, Rishi Sunak failing to mention ‘levelling up’ in his speech, this remained a mystery. Sunak however gave a clear and balanced overview of reality over aspiration. He pledged to “protect the public finances” whilst also “getting our borrowing and debt back under control”.  He is not going to offer much in the way of ‘levelling up’ it seems. Without more borrowing, there is only one way ahead and that is higher taxation.

Even Johnson offered a guess about what Margaret Thatcher might have thought and who “would have wagged her finger and said more borrowing now is just higher interest rates and even higher taxes later”.  The whole approach is hopelessly muddled and inconsistent in a crisis.

The hope is that the Levelling up white paper promised last May will emerge with the spending review and shed some light on the confused darkness.

Widening participation in higher education is relegated and overshadowed by education means skills.

The importance of access to Higher Education being equal and fair is probably the most crucial facet of social mobility and, dare I say it, ‘building back better’. Yet it has been relegated to a ‘cubby hole’ of ministerial responsibilities. The Minister for Skills, Alex Burghart, (Independent school educated and Oxford History graduate) finds his responsibility for ‘‘student experience and widening participation in higher education” hidden amongst nine others. He spoke at a Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) meeting about his wider ‘skills’ remit in the context of the recent CSJ ‘Levelling up for children’ submission to the upcoming spending review. The CSJ was founded by Iain Duncan Smith and is a key influence of Conservative policy.

In tune with this, Johnson’s speech offered hope of moving “towards a high wage, high skill, high productivity” economy. It might be tacitly assumed that university education plays a key role in this along with equal opportunities. However, this may be wishful thinking. Just as at the Labour Conference, they  offered little on Higher Education that was relegated to the fringes. Even then ‘skills’ dominated the fringe education debates.

Questioning the value of university as a route to success.

Fitting in with the agenda of diverting students and resources away from universities was an event that must have alarmed university leaders. The Institute of Economic Affairs, an  overtly right wing organisation promoting privatisation, pulled few punches in its event entitled, ‘Is university still worth it?’. There was no surprise when its head, Stephen Davies told those attending that there was an “overproduction” of graduates and students went to university “simply to get a certificate”. However, the surprise was the view of Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Committee. Normally, more temperate in his observations, this time he said that universities were “failing to do perhaps the most important thing, which is to provide graduates with proper, graduate-paid jobs”. I always approached students with a view to teaching them some Biochemistry, Genetics, and Microbiology, so I must have been getting that wrong all along. This sweeping view was perhaps simply playing to the audience, but it looked very bad.  He also suggested that students not happy with their course “should get their money back” and “Every single course that a student does, whether it is history or archaeology, or whether it is science, should be about work”. This was followed by that idea that students spend part of the week “doing a job”. His suggestion that History students could work at a museum might be unworkable seeing as Manchester University has over 40,000 students, with 775 studying History at undergraduate level.  Maybe a new ‘Museum of former Universities’ could cater for some. Of course, many students work during the week, some for many hours. This is out of necessity to cover their living costs.

Nick Hillman of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has provided a good guide to fringe proceedings on HE across a range of venues with ‘Seven Takeaways from the Tory Conference’.  It was only in their own event concentrating on public attitudes to universities, ‘The One Nation University: Convincing the sceptics’, that the problem of fees and loans was considered. David Willets spoke of his vision as set out in ‘How to boost higher education and cut public spending’.  There is a long way to go for universities to convince people they are value for money and meant for all people.

The ministers speak.

The keynote address by the new Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, was remarkably short at ten minutes. The full text is here courtesy of Schools Week.  Despite his own experiences and educational background as a Chemical Engineer, it may be he had little idea what was going on with levelling up and the role of education, so decided brevity was best. However, he did offer to train more teachers, add more tutoring, and a “schools white paper in the new year outlining plans to tackle innumeracy and illiteracy”.

More insight was on offer at an event organised by the Policy Exchange where he shared the platform with Philip Augar about  ‘The Great Rebalancing:How do we Shift Post-18 Education Back Towards a More Vocational Focus?’. It did what it ‘said on the tin’ in suggesting a major diversion from HE  to more provision in FE and T-levels as a key plank of the Government’s levelling up strategy”. The ‘Policy Exchange’ is a right-wing organisation counting Michael Gove as one of its founders.

More interesting was an offering by the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, who attends full cabinet meetings. Her new remit now covers Higher Education and Further Education, and probably heralds her role in a rebalancing towards FE and skills. She offered her views at a Conservative Home fringe meeting on ‘Degrees of Success – Universities, Levelling Up, and the New Normal’.  This was a fascinating meeting with Donelan stressing a “focus on education and skills”. Although only fifteen attended on-line on the day, with around twenty in the room, it perhaps gave the best insight into the government’s intentions. Widening access and fairness were missing as a primary goal, but this was consistent with past performance. Life-long learning in ‘bite-sized’ modules and links to Further Education were noted.  But ominously she thinks that universities are “not suitable for everybody”.  Links with “business and the labour market needs” are more important. The focus should be solely on outcomes but “we don’t want to go too fast with this”.

The ’intelligent plumber’ theory.

The offerings above all smell of the idea of producing ‘intelligent plumbers’ as described by TEFS in ‘Higher Education and the ‘intelligent plumbers’ theory’ (31st July 2020). With the idea of skills coming to the fore, it is also apparent that most education will be geared to the needs of employers as its primary objective. It follows that education and training will be driven by the needs of industry alone.  This then opens the door to thoughts that higher education is for an elite few and technical education for those who serve the elite for their profits and needs. It will be hard for the government to shake off this impression without more emphasis on equality of opportunity.  But in his speech, Johnson unashamedly pressed for more selective education. He praised the success of “Brampton Manor Academy“ in London, that “now sends more kids to Oxbridge than Eton”.  He failed to mention that it is a highly selective school with a wide catchment and looks more like a selective grammar school in all but name. 

It’s just like déjà vu all over again.

In some ways, our plight in 2021 is more like that of 1975 than 1945 and the creation of a welfare state by Attlee’s Labour government. For those around in 1975, there are memories we would prefer to forget. I was a student who was fending for myself whilst at home there was severe insecurity. Something many students today are also learning to deal with. Inflation in the UK had raced to over 25% along with high levels of unemployment and continuing industrial unrest. Wages were chasing prices in a harsh environment. This was at the tail end of a recession that began in 1973 with an oil crisis that shook the world. One solution considered by the Wilson, and then Callaghan Labour administration from 1976, was the policy of an ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’ proposed by Tony Benn (see ‘A private public record office: Tony Benn as a political diarist’  History of government blog.gov.uk). This was rejected and Callaghan called in in the IMF as the Chancellor, Dennis Healy, proceeded to tackle inflation under IMF loan terms. He started to restrict the money supply to deflate the economy and a triumphant Margaret Thatcher accelerated this strategy further from 1979 with devastating consequences for the resulting unemployed.

The current ’Build Back Better’ strategy is beginning to look more like the alternative that Benn proposed. But with prices chasing pay until rising energy costs take over. This will be uncomfortable for admirers of Thatcher and her approach in 1979. The tensions between Johnson (aka Benn) and Sunak (aka Healy) appeared as small cracks at the conference. Back in 1975, the deflationary policy of Healy and Callaghan prevailed. The same is likely to happen in the Comprehensive Spending Review out later this month as Sunak takes more control.

A future divided society.

Selection in education may be the real Conservative agenda as a society structure, similar to the nightmare in Fritz Lang’s epic film ‘Metropolis’ from 1927’, takes shape. A divided society where disadvantage is punished with labour and servitude to the ‘elite’, no doubt sipping Champagne and discussing Homer and Gray’s Elegy in Latin (see TEFS 9th July 2021 ‘Student futures in a divided society’).

The whole idea of dividing ‘skills’ away from higher education, that is reserved for an elite few, has been around a long time. The short story ‘Profession’ by Isaac Asimov in 1957 predicted a horrible future society of advanced technology. In it, most people are directly brainwashed through a process of ‘taping’ to acquire the necessary skills. Only a select few are diverted into advanced conventional education as the elite. The hero asks at the end “What about the people here who don’t measure up?”. The answer comes back “They are taped eventually and become our Social Scientists……. We are second echelon, so to speak.”

Ode to a distant prospect.

Quoting from Thomas Grey’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ from1750 was an unexpected first for a leader seeking a populist affirmation. Even Hardy’s ‘Jude’ might have found this obscure. But Johnson must know that Grey earlier wrote in 1747,

“And happiness too swiftly flies. Thought would destroy their paradise. No more; where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise” (Ode to a Distant Prospect of Eton College).

Wystan Auden, who was a keen observer of the human condition and shortcomings, might easily have added how apt that is.

“The poetry he invented was easy to understand……..When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter, And when he cried the little children died in the streets”.

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