Adult education and skills training

Since the election there has been much angst among Liberal Democrats over the party’s position on University tuition fees.

Martin Lewis is said to be among the most trusted source on personal finance with the general public. He has recently posted a detailed review of tuition fees arguing:

The student loan isn’t a debt; if we changed its name to the more accurate ‘graduate contribution’ this myth busting guide would be less needed.

What is missing, however,  from much of the debate over tuition fees has been the ongoing training needs of the 60%+ of school leavers who are unable or choose not to take a degree course.

Skill shortages are having a detrimental effect on the UK’s productivity and this needs to be addressed urgently in order to meet immediate economic and workforce challenges, including those arising from Brexit. The UK faces a particularly acute issue in the thousands of adults who lack English, maths and digital skills, creating a serious barrier to their progression in employment, training or education. This is compounded by the diminishing availability of adult education opportunities and the inequality of access to provision where it does exist. The current level of provision does not support the needs of our economy or our society. Add to this the pace of technological and demographic change and the need for a fresh new approach to adult skills and learning becomes crucially apparent.

Sir Vince cable, as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills put industrial strategy and modern apprenticeships at the heart of his policy program. In a 2013 article he criticises a rise in the number of standard occupations such as nursing that now require a degree, saying top-level qualifications are often ‘superfluous’. The comments followed the release of a report in 2013 showing that the average apprenticeship post now receives 11 applications each following a surge in demand for on-the-job training. In some industry sectors, such as plumbing and events management, the number rises well above 30.

The Institutes for Adult Learning (IAL)  is a program organised by the Workers Educational Association (WEA), a charitable organisation.  The participants share a joint belief in the power of adult community education to deliver social justice, stronger families and communities, healthy ageing, digital inclusion, social mobility, employability and many other cross-government priorities.

Each of the courses and programmes is designed to help people develop literacy, numeracy, digital and other basic skills that help them lead more productive lives at work, at home and in society; harnessing the power of education to transform lives and communities.

Developing a comprehensive suite of economic policies and an industrial strategy that can restore productivity growth is a fundamental element of the Liberal Democrat mission to improve living standards.

Liberal Democrat Voice is sponsoring a fringe titled ‘Adult Education and Training’ at the Bournemouth conference on September 16th. Invited speakers include Sir Vince Cable and Joanna Cain, Deputy Chief Executive of the WEA.


* Joe Bourke is an accountant and university lecturer, Chair of ALTER, and Chair of Hounslow Liberal Democrats.

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  • Here’s a thought treat the years of 18 to 21 as education work out how much you’d need to pay for it and put it in a pot. Then it’s up to each person how they spend it. You can use it to pay for university, you can use it to train to be a plummer, you can even let the company you work for use it to help train you. How do you sell this, well it’s educating our children and means we will have no longer to raid the world for nurses, doctors and plummers.

  • Thanks for posting this Joe. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve wanted to direct people to the advice of Martin Lewis on the subject of student loans (amongst others). It’s become apparent that many people simply don’t know how the system works, and there is a lot of misinformation out there.

    I have a number of issues with the current system, but it’s impossible to have a meaningful debate on how to improve it when the quality of the debate is so low and lacking in facts.

  • Richard Underhill 9th Jul '17 - 10:22am

    Vince Cable was on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 0n 9/7/2017. He was asked about tuition fees, Brexit and where we go from here. He will publish a manifesto.

  • jayne Mansfield 9th Jul '17 - 10:47am

    @ Richard Underhill,

    Will Vince will mention the selling off of the student loan book?

  • David Becket 9th Jul '17 - 10:50am

    The Tuition Fee system is broken, for a start the amount of interest charged is obscene.
    Most Universities charge the maximum, whatever the cost of the course, and there is no control over the added value an individual university or course provides. In some Universities there are staff not giving their maximum effort.
    There are arguments for scrapping fees, after all the up front costs are carried by the state and 30% will never be repaid.
    Vince and the Lib Dems cannot ignore this, and the media will be more vicious with Vince on this than they were with Tim over his christian views.
    There are three actions we can propose:
    1 Immediately cut the interest paid to a figure close to base rate.
    2 Conduct a full investigation into the performance and financial management of Universities.
    3 Conduct a review of the Student Loan system including the effects of scrapping loans or moving to graduate taxation.

    Doing nothing is not an option.

  • You could create guilts called educational guilts add a little interest ( but not much), make the 30 years in duration and backed by government. Sell the guilts to pension funds and effectively put up pensions as well as cutting the burden on students. Of cause cutting the amount university students would have to pay is more important, but if you have them each 5k a year for education the rest looks manageable.

  • @David, it will be worth watching the interview Vince did with Marr this morning as he touched on a number of those points and a few more.

    I recall in 2015, Labour were proposing to reduce the fees from £9k to £6k, which sounded like a reasonable compromise, but Lewis pointed out that this would only benefit the wealthiest graduates, and we have to be careful of exactly who benefits most from each of the various proposals, being mindful that if someone saves, someone else pays.

    Within the current system, I’d focus attention on reducing the interest rates, and ensuring that the threshold for repayments increases with inflation and average salaries. I’d be tempted to introduce some kind of pause on interest for graduates who take a year or two to carry out low paid charity work. I’m thinking of my own parents who worked as teachers for VSO for a few years, who were already disadvantaging themselves by starting saving for a mortgage late. The same might apply to people who undertake post-graduate studies.

    More serious changes would be the provision of better maintenance grants to students from lowest earning families, and for the more time demanding degrees where part-time jobs are less viable.

    I take the view that society benefits from an educated public, but the individual also benefits, so it’s right that the cost of higher education is shared. Getting the proportion right is the challenge from a financial and political perspective. I’d adjust that proportion based on how useful that degree is to society, so we’d contribute a much larger proportion towards medical, engineering and teaching degrees than to certain others.

  • Nonconformistradical 9th Jul '17 - 12:16pm

    ” I’d be tempted to introduce some kind of pause on interest for graduates who take a year or two to carry out low paid charity work.”

    But if they are doing low-paid work, depending on how much they are being paid either they won’t be paying the graduate tax at all while while doing so or will be paying very little

  • jayne mansfield 9th Jul '17 - 12:38pm

    The current student loans system is indefensible.

  • Phil Wainewright 9th Jul '17 - 12:39pm

    I very much endorse Frankie’s comment:

    “… treat the years of 18 to 21 as education work out how much you’d need to pay for it and put it in a pot. Then it’s up to each person how they spend it. You can use it to pay for university, you can use it to train to be a plumber, you can even let the company you work for use it to help train you …”

    I would go further – make that pot a lifetime adult education fund and let people draw on it for retraining/reskilling as the job market changes over time. The days of people training as young adults for a single lifetime career are no longer true except for a minority of professions (and even then I seem to meet loads of qualified accountants who’ve gone on to other work in later life).

    Those who choose to go to university would probably want to draw down most of it to offset tuition fees and reduce their student loans (though they should read Martin Lewis’ article first). Others might use some of it to help fund apprenticeship training and put the rest aside towards a part-time degree later in life. The individual should be able to choose, and the funding should be skewed towards those from disadvantaged backgrounds (unlike the current student loans settlement).

    I’ve been thinking along these lines myself and have a more extensive blog post in the works on the whole topic. The party needs a big, bold, radical policy that sweeps away the tuition fees issue while expressing our core values on lifetime education.

  • David Becket 9th Jul '17 - 12:48pm

    Your comments lead into the type of debate we should be having. Vince went some way towards this on the Marr programme, he may have to go further. However what came over is the maturity of Vince, mature and reasonable politicians are now rare in both Labour and Tory circles.

  • Even with I disagree with Vince, I always enjoy listening to him, because he actually answers questions and gives reasons and explanations for his point of view, whilst acknowledging the complexity of the situation. Sadly, most politicians these days talk in sound-bites and regrettably that’s what is rewarded in the media.

    @Nonconformistradical, I get that there’s no repayments in that time, but interest is accrued, and as interest is quite a bit higher than inflation or my mortgage, never mind base rate, this means that the initial debt increases before they have a chance of repaying it. It may be argued that they’d never be repaying the full amount anyway, which is a theme Martin Lewis keeps coming back to in his analysis of what it all means. But it strikes me that people are being penalised for being unselfish, and is that something we want to condone? Perhaps we should a scheme whereby during studies and any post-graduate charity work, interest is limited?

    Something I have learned from the Scottish system is that the Scottish government pays a hell of a lot less than the £9k that most paying students pay. My friend who has worked at a number of unis and colleges tells me they get well under £1k per student per year, which is why they are so reliant on students from England and Wales to pay the full £9k. In that sense it doesn’t cost £9k per student per year if the state pays for it, and yet the Scottish system would struggle without it. The other knock-on effect is that the Scottish Government cannot afford to pay fees and keep the maintenance grants for poorer students, and funding for further education was cut. It’s one of those headline policies which has proven to be politically successful, but IMO it is not sustainable, and definitely not progressive.

  • Nonconformistradical 9th Jul '17 - 3:38pm

    “@Nonconformistradical, I get that there’s no repayments in that time, but interest is accrued, and as interest is quite a bit higher than inflation or my mortgage, never mind base rate, this means that the initial debt increases before they have a chance of repaying it. It may be argued that they’d never be repaying the full amount anyway, which is a theme Martin Lewis keeps coming back to in his analysis of what it all means. ”
    Exactly – they’d never be repaying the full amount!!!!! Not like a debt at all!! Just a tax you pay for up to 30 years and no more. Debts are things you can be pursued to repay in full ad infinitum.

  • There are two separate but connected issues here that the country hasn’t got to grips with: 1. producing an educated workforce* and 2. paying for it.

    Brexit has shone a spotlight on both the large numbers who feel unable to find a decent job and on need to import huge numbers of workers at both the low-skill (and low-paid, hard physical work) end and at the skilled end of the jobs market. Many in the first group blame the latter for their problems but clearly there is something wrong if there are more jobs than ever before and shortage at both ends of the market yet a lack of opportunity and stagnated wages. Meanwhile many graduates cannot find graduate level jobs either; and despite a huge increase in the number of graduates productivity lags behind European countries.

    It seems clear to me that we simply aren’t educating people in ways that help them to fill the jobs on offer nor to create value in ways that would lead to rewarding well paid work. Part of this I think cultural – skills, education and hard work simply haven’t been valued enough, nor have the emotional rewards of a good job well done. But I also think we are simply teaching the wrong things the wrong way. If the UK weren’t so xenophobic and arrogant then for at least two generations we would have looked at Germany’s educated, high skilled, well-paid, productive workforce and its relatively low unemployment and copied whatever they do.

    And then we could look at how to pay for it.

    * I’m very aware that education is not just about work and hate to look at in this way, but there are specific problems with our workforce that education is the prime means of addressing, so I’m limiting myself to that here.

  • Antony Watts 10th Jul '17 - 10:36am

    Let’s stop beating about the bush. University or Appreticeship or any other training is

    1 A benefit to employers
    2 A benefit to society as a whole

    So, employers pay 50%, and tax payer pay 50%

    Job done.

  • Laurence Cox 10th Jul '17 - 11:13am

    @Anthony Watts

    What you are proposing is essentially the same as Selective Employment Tax:

    but based on employing graduates, rather than the distinction between manufacturing and service industries that was the original Wilson Government’s reason. There is already an apprenticeship levy on companies.

  • Peter Hirst 10th Jul '17 - 1:55pm

    Young people often need to see the relevance of what they are learning, especially if they are not going down the university route. Training and skills need to be tailored to the individual, their likely career and should also include skills for life such as financial management. Apprenticeship trainees should be helped to make a success of their life as well as their job.

  • “Skill shortages are having a detrimental effect on the UK’s productivity…”

    Indeed they are but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. I read somewhere recently that availability of suitably qualified and motivated staff was the most important driver of internationally-mobile firms’ location decisions so getting education and skills training right must be central to economic strategy. Similarly, the fact that training is so obviously not working well tells us that no recent government has had a clue about how to run the economy.

    But far more than this is the impact on individuals. The UK’s political elite’s message to the majority of the population is absolutely terrible if judged by deeds rather than words. Between inadequate training (and hence very limited prospects) and overpriced housing (often funding someone else’s pension) it’s clear that most people don’t matter in Westminster.

    As people are supposed to have said in the Soviet Union, “They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work”.

  • What can be done about the dreadful muddle that is education and skills training?

    Most of those that visit LDV were probably good students who went through the system with little fuss. But for those whose early years were disrupted by a difficult home life, illness or personal issues etc. it’s not so simple – they may well not be able to go straight through (or may underperform if they do). If Liberals’ commitment to diversity is to mean anything it must include catering for this substantial minority.

    A ‘one size fits all’ solution won’t work so it’s helpful to segment the challenge as follows:
    1. School – a rounded curriculum for children/teens.
    2. Life skills – things that (mostly) ought to be available to all – literacy & numeracy obviously but also critical thinking, cookery, first aid, driving etc.
    3. University – for subjects & careers heavy in ‘book learning’.
    4. Apprenticeships – for ‘professional’ (e.g. accountancy) and ‘trade’ careers (e.g. plumbing). The essential feature is an element of on-the-job training rather than the academic level.

    Some ‘life skills’ (e.g. driving) would be done post-school and payed for by the student but most should be taught at school. For those individuals not thriving at school there should be the option of learning them FOR FREE with NO age restriction. Then we could lower the school-leaving age and stop forcing 16 year olds who can’t read adequately to go to school for a daily humiliation – not to mention disrupting the learning of others. (If, as some think, they should have the vote why on earth don’t we trust them to decide whether going to school or not is for the best?)

    Apprenticeships have always been the poor relation in Britain. They collapsed under Thatcher and must be rebuilt with courses for every level of ability and in a full range of trades. The public get this with support for more/better apprenticeships in the 90% range but politicians mostly don’t. Accountancy training is a great model that could and should be adapted.

  • Joseph Bourke 10th Jul '17 - 6:31pm


    that’s a pretty good summation of what is required. The loss of apprenticeships under Thatcher has been a real set-back for the UK and was not corrected under Blair/Brown.Adopting a one size fits all approach is not working. As Plato is said to written in ancient Greece – “Nothing is more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.” Education needs to be tailored to the needs of the individual.

    The Labour shadow secretary of state for speaking on tuition fees in the Sunday politics yesterday making the claim that increasing numbers of students from dis-advantaged groups were dropping out after 1 or 2 years because of high costs. It is not costs, however, that is the cause. What is in fact happening is that as places have expanded, entry criteria has loosened considerably. Too many students are applying for courses that they are ill prepared to undertake and become dis-heartened after a couple of semesters. As you note, these students may very well thrive in an apprenticeship scheme that placed the emphasis of on-the-job training with a more limited element of part-time study

  • Joseph Bourke 11th Jul '17 - 3:41pm


    re: you comment ” Accountancy training is a great model that could and should be adapted.” – progress appears to being made in this area:

  • Joseph,

    Thanks for that link. Googling reveals many links to “Trailblazer apprenticeships”. They do indeed look to be a small step in the right direction but a quick read suggests big shortcomings.

    If done properly training should flow smoothly to where it’s needed. When an old industry declines, its training should too while when a new one expands training should expand in step with growing demand for staff. Of course, that happens a bit but not well and employers constantly complain so there is clearly a problem.

    The Treasury’s approach is to periodically announce funding for a huge number of apprenticeships (good PR) but then cheapskate to save money so the training is of debatable value. Buy cheap, pay twice. It’s a top-down central planning approach straight out of the Soviet playbook.

    What’s needed is a framework that aligns cost with incentives and puts decision-making in the hands of employers and would-be trainees cutting the Treasury out of the loop. Then training becomes an investment decision made locally by people who have a direct knowledge of the situation and a stake in the outcome. That is bound to give better results more cheaply.

    So properly aligned incentives are key. The way to do that is for employers to pay the cost of training for each stage upfront (I’m thinking of a multi-stage training approach like accountancy) and then for government to refund that cost – but only AFTER the candidate has passed that stage. The amount refunded should include course fees PLUS a fair allowance for the employer’s cost of supervision (which would fall as the trainee advances and needs less) so, for successful candidates only, there is no net cost to the employer who never has to finance too large an amount meaning he can take a bit of a risk on ‘marginal’ trainees.

    With this funding model employers would be strongly incentivised to support their trainees while candidates who changed their mind or failed a stage part way through an apprenticeship would finish up “part qualified” but even that is not a loss; the world of work needs all sorts and levels of people.

  • We seem to be ignoring the elephant in the room. The glaring reality that we seem reluctant to acknowledge is that there are simply far too many people going to university and then entering the job market with an almost worthless degree and a massive debt that will undermine their quality of life for decades.
    Blair’s mantra that people with degrees will earn 40% more than those without degrees was a lie when it escaped from his mouth and, as more and more of our young people graduate from universities whose main priority is the quantity of students rather than the quality and relevance of the courses, the more apparent it becomes that the political aspiration of 40/50% of our young people acquiring degrees is both misguided and counterproductive.
    What we need is for one or more of our political parties to acknowledge their mistake and return to a much broader and targeted system of higher education that better reflects the needs of society and the students range of abilities.

  • Yes, tuition fees are more like a graduate tax and these clear arguments may persuade a few voters.
    But I say again, to the average voter the key points are:
    1 A promise was made.
    2 It was clearly targeted at students.
    3 Students came out in support of the LibDems, delivering several seats.
    4 Within months LibDem MPs had voted opposite to what they’d promised.

    The lesson is simple: Do not say things that sound like promises unless we are prepared to stick to what we said under all circumstances. And if we do say something that sounds like a promise and we later think it might be a good idea to do something that looks like breaking that promise – think again! Especially – the more we appear to have gained by making the promise, the more we have to lose by breaking it.

    It will take time, and strict avoidance of repeat performances, to live it down. Avoiding putting those who were actually involved in the scandal into prominent positions in the party would help to live it down a bit faster. Wisely wielding what influence we have, with impeccable integrity, will also help. (And we may struggle to do both!)

    Regarding future policy on funding universities, I think we should all contribute, including those who do not attend university, but the richer should contribute more and the richest should contribute most. We all benefit from teachers, doctors, engineers, civil servants etc. Therefore funding from general taxation seems fine to me. But I don’t think the LibDems are going to be listened to by the electorate on this topic for a few years yet.

  • Lee,

    those are good points. To be fair Vince Cable has made these points before as indeed did Lord Browne in his 2009 review.

  • The simple fact is that students now are leaving university with a debt of around £32,000 and some with much more. They know they owe that money. They feel it. They know it is going up at a massive rate of interest each year. They know it is the Liberal Democrats are responsible for the biggest part of that debt after Nick Clegg led our MPs to betray them and push through the biggest ever increase in the size of that debt. And finally, they receive statements each year age 50 and beyond to remind them of that debt.

    If they are earning anything remotely like a decent wage, they are paying for it every month. They blame us. So do their parents and grandparents. If people mention the Lib Dems they point it out.

    Very few people remember that Labour broke a manifesto pledge on tuition fees long before we did, but even if they do, they know ours was much, much bigger amount. Now Jeremy Corbyn is cutting the ground from under us with the plan to abolish fees. We all know the headlines Labour will generate – Labour abolish hated Lib Dem Student Loans.

    The problem is there are still so many of us who are digging their heels in and insisting we (i.e. they) were right to break the pledge and increase student fees. The problem is almost no students, parents or grandparents agree with them and most of the general public are the same. As a result, we are almost unelectable at any level of government in over three quarters of the UK. In essence they are destroying any chance of a Lib Dem revival because they refuse to admit they were catastrophically wrong.

    It almost destroyed our party 2015 and has further eaten away at the foundations of our party in 2017. Until we and most importantly our leaders come to terms with this and do something about it, tuition fees will simply drag our party and its values ever closer to oblivion.

    Vince is probably the last chance we have to do anything to change things.

  • @David Evans
    It’s more like £45000.00
    The rest of your comment is spot on and I can only second it.
    We may get away with honouring the pledge and backdating it. Unless somebody has got a figure I will do a bit of digging.

  • Breaking the Tuition Fees pledge was utter crass. What do we do now, who will believe what we say? Not the youth generation, has anyone here tried to sell Liberal Democrats to a school audience over the past 7 years?
    For me a starting point might be economising the Academic scenario. Why on earth are degree courses 3 years, it could all be done in 2, revamping the academic year and increasing the work load. (good preparation for the working environment. Many of us have degrees at Batchelor and Masters level whilst working full time. If we could do it in 3 or 4 years it would have been a cakewalk in 2 full time.
    Having made such a start we might well then be able to move onto “abolition”.

  • Phil Wainewright 14th Jul '17 - 11:24pm

    In an earlier comment I promised a more extensive blog post on this topic, which I’ve now published:

    Turns out, Vince Cable has a similar approach in mind.

  • Done a bit digging on the SLC web site.
    Think it would cost us about £18 billion to refund the increase in student tuition fees. Feels a bit low so will so some double checking. On the face of it sounds like a bargain.

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