Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Universities should facilitate work experience

The current debate about the unpaid work experience being offered by the supermarket giants as part of the confused array of employment programmes created by Iain Duncan Smith has thrown a spotlight on the Catch 22 facing too many unemployed young people. Employers expect experience, yet you need a job to gain that experience.

Whether the sort of thoughtless impersonal screed given by Asda to those who laboured for free for a month over Christmas, as shown on last night's Channel 4 News, will impress many employers remains to be seen, though it is equally pretty hard to argue that they would be more impressed with those who spent the time watching daytime TV.

Yet there is one sector where more could clearly be done to develop work experience in people who should be better prepared for employment - universities.Yesterday's Wilson Review report made the modest recommendation that

Ideally, every full-time undergraduate student should have the opportunity to experience a structured, university-approved undergraduate internship during their period of study. Where such internships are paid, government should examine the feasibility of supporting companies that host students through a tax credit or grant mechanism. Where internships are unpaid, universities should use their ‘OFFA funds’ to support eligible students rather than condone a policy that could inhibit social mobility.

This is a pretty crucial first step towards solving a problem where too many graduates drift aimlessly home after completing a degree, with too little useful work experience and little sense of where they can best make a contribution in the world of work. If the state is to subsidise their education - and they are to face huge debts - it is not unreasonable to expect that they have gained some decent work skills in the process.

Of course, there will be objections to this proposition. Some faculties with little experience of such activity will see it as not their responsibility. While more vocational and professional courses like medicine and law will see experience as a key part of the course, arts and social sciences will not. But if they are to continue to appeal to undergraduates and to convince of their relevance in the wider world, it is crucial that they embrace this recommendation as wholeheartedly as those who are doing it already.

There is plenty that is pedestrian and potentially bureaucratic in the Wilson Review. But if nothing else is advanced as a result of its deliberations, it will have served a useful purpose. Universities should start to think creatively about how they can play their part in supporting their students' futures. After all, they will be repaying their fees as a postgraduate income levy once they do enter the workplace. Given the cost of the loans system, the sector has a material interest in ensuring they do so fairly promptly after graduation.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Ministers have to be politicians too

Andrew Lansley remains the Health Secretary for now. But, as this blog has long pointed out, he was a disaster waiting to happen. Before the election, he said he wouldn't reform the NHS (apart from in some secret memo that he sent to himself). His initial health reforms were incoherent, and hampered by his daft insistence that he was scrapping Labour's hugely successful floor targets, even though he wasn't quite doing so. This sent a signal to the system that they could push more people onto longer waits. Which they did in too many cases. When he was forced into making a major U-turn on GP commissioning - effectively removing the compulsory element - he pretended he had made no concessions at all. Which was pretty stupid, at a time when his coalition partners were demanding concessions. So, now David Cameron is being forced to expend huge political capital keeping a hopeless minister who doesn't do politics.

But Lansley is not the only political accident waiting to happen. Iain Duncan Smith may be a more likeable character, but he shares some Lansley traits - a lack of political skill and an enormous self-belief - and his plans have disaster written all over them. The Duncan-Smith reforms make perfect sense, of course, and are right in principle. It is right to aim for a single simpler universal credit, and it is pretty indefensible to be arguing that a £26k benefits limit (net) is too low. It would have been better politics to recognise the need for some regional differentials at the outset: call it a London weighting, perhaps. But because Duncan-Smith isn't really much of a politician - his politics, like that of Lansley, is limited to a sneering pretence that nobody else has ever executed any reforms of any worth in this area, especially the last Labour government. And because the echo chamber that is the Tory press cheers him on, he is convinced he will succeed. However, the Treasury expects Duncan-Smith to fail. George Osborne apparently makes no secret of his disdain for a project that relies on one failsafe mechanism for success: Government computer procurement.

Lansley and Duncan-Smith both profess expertise in their fields. But they lack the skill to sell or see through their grand ideas. The last few years may have given politics a bad name, but politics is vital to the successful delivery of change. A good politician exaggerates the concessions he or she has made to win over critics; a bad one pretends he has made none. Health and welfare reform were two of the coalition's big ideas. It is a mark of Cameron's poor people judgement that be put the two ministers least likely to deliver them successfully in charge. The PM is said to have an aversion to reshuffles. And Tony Blair reshuffled too many people too often. But if he wants to salvage either of these key reforms, Cameron needs to overcome his aversion. And he needs to do so pretty quickly.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Vocational vacuum: we need more than sneers and Aunt Sallies

I have no idea how many young people inflated their GCSE league table scores by doing horse care or fish husbandry qualifications. But I do know that the combined impact of removing the 'thousands' of courses no longer recognised for their GCSE equivalence by Michael Gove yesterday will be pretty minimal. There are two reasons why. First, most of the improvements since 1997 - an increase in numbers gaining 5 good GCSEs or equivalents, including English and Maths, from 35 to 58 per cent, were the result of a big improvement in the numbers gaining Maths and English GCSEs, and not the result of gaming or of vocational qualifications. A quick look at the DFE's own data confirms this to be the case. And second, those that used vocational qualifications, often to encourage improvements in English and Maths by gaining confidence in a more practical course first, tended to use BTECs and OCRs, which will remain valid in a significant and welcome retreat by the Government, although less valuable in the league tables.

But these facts were a little beyond the slightly hysterical reports on the BBC News and the breathless sneering of John Humphrys yesterday morning. In the process, they left unanswered the question that has been ducked constantly by this Government over what vocational qualifications should be available to 14-16 year-olds and how they should be delivered. Alison Wolf doesn't really think that practical courses have much place before 16, and she would limit their role to 20% of the curriculum, whilst arguing simultaneously that more students should be taught full-time in further education colleges from the age of 14. Lord Baker was on the radio this morning waxing lyrically about his university technical colleges, declaring that 40% of their course content would be practical. UTCs take students from ages 14 to 19. His disdain for Wolf's position on this issue is no secret in Whitehall; the feeling is said to be mutual.

At the same time, beyond the grudging acceptance of BTECs and OCRs implicit in yesterday's supposed cull, the Government has little sense of what should be available to young people turned off by academic subjects at an earlier stage. The English Baccalaureate subjects have plenty to commend them for perhaps a majority of students, but achieving English and Maths with more practical courses may be a better goal for others. Labour's Diplomas generally became too complex and never took off, though some like ICT and engineering had industry credibility. Perhaps we now need, in addition to the BTECs, a new range of junior apprenticeships, with real progression built in, and clearly linked to proper career paths. But start them at 14 - with English and Maths - and not at 16. That's where Wolf's FE college proposals could play a big role.

But for now, the Government has really nothing useful or constructive to say about vocational education. Alison Wolf claimed that young people were being betrayed by qualifications of little value in later life. Perhaps they were. But they are certainly going to be betrayed a lot more if the Government can't get its act together to recognise the need for good practical alternatives for those who may sway the ranks of the truants and excluded if their needs are not met within the education system in good time.