There are clear challenges that need tackling. Talent is evenly distributed across regions, but opportunity isn’t. Too many young people have to leave their home town to pursue the career they want. Prosperity varies hugely between different areas. All of this is unfair and holds back the economy of the country.
Changing this is easier said than done and successive governments have tried with varying degrees of success, but the pandemic has made a renewed effort both tougher and more essential.
Almost 100,000 people are now claiming unemployment-related benefits in Yorkshire up 75 per cent during the pandemic. Places where unemployment was already higher have seen some of the largest rises.
The Government says a greater focus on skills and vocational education is part of the answer, and I couldn’t agree more. Learning is important for your career prospects, your health, and for building communities.
Take Matthew Turner, selected by HRH Princess Anne as winner of our Festival of Learning Patron’s award. After autism affected his experience at school, enrolling at Bradford College has helped him pursue his dream of a career in the travel and tourism industry.
Vocational education like this expands opportunities. Today’s young people will have 50-year careers and need to change jobs and update their skills throughout their lives, making lifelong learning a necessity.
The problem is we’ve gone backwards in the last decade. The number of adults taking part in learning is at its lowest level in the 25 years we’ve been measuring it, driven by cuts of 50 per cent in funding for adult education in England since 2010.
There is now new investment, much of it focused on A-level equivalent learning and above. Initiatives like the new Yorkshire and the Humber Institute of Technology can help provide high-quality technical education, something overall we have less of than other countries.
But ministers sometimes give the impression that they think this should come at the expense of university attendance. No-one is saying higher education is perfect, but you don’t level up vocational education by levelling down universities.
Half of 25-34 year olds have attended higher education in the UK, compared to 52 per cent of 25-34 year-olds in Australia, 63 per cent in Canada and 70 per cent in South Korea. Expanding technical education should be about more people climbing the ladder, not fewer.
We mustn’t neglect learning at lower levels too. Nine million adults in England have low literacy or numeracy skills, holding them back from important day-to-day activities like understanding instructions on an aspirin packet.
Real change will take investment across the whole country. At the Learning and Work Institute, we’ve argued for an extra £1.9bn per year for the next decade, reversing the cuts seen since 2010.
Of course, money on its own is not enough. We need a long-term plan, embedded across other areas like health and social care, to help get more adults back into learning. This should include help with living costs during courses, inspiring adults and providing more flexible and online learning options.
However, success in Yorkshire can’t be dictated from Whitehall. Parliament is currently debating giving power to the Government to intervene if they don’t think colleges are meeting local employer need. But shouldn’t mayors and local government have a role in judging that? The West Yorkshire Combined Authority is about to control £63m for adult skills, with a further £36m devolved to the South Yorkshire Combined Authority. But this comes with strings attached and covers only one part of a wider system. It’s like being allowed to drive the car, pressing on the accelerator and finding someone else’s foot on the brake.
As a member of the WYCA’s Future Skills Commission, I’ve seen the great work going on to join up universities, colleges, training providers, employers and economic development across the region. We need more local leadership, breaking the grip of centralised decision making. You can’t level up without greater devolution so let’s give local government in Yorkshire the tools to make a difference.
Government slogans come and go, but lifelong learning and skills remain key in ‘levelling up’. It’s time to make the 2020s the lifelong learning decade.
Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute.
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