By Jane Hickie
The government’s quiet publication of new rules for the UK points-based immigration system the day before the parliamentary autumn recess had significant implications for employer recruitment and skills training. Skilled migrants will no longer be required to earn £35,800 to be able to settle in the UK because the cap will instead be lowered to £25,600. Unskilled migrants on salaries of £20,480, but with enough points to be allowed into the UK to plug gaps in jobs where there is a shortage of workers, will also be entitled to settle here after six years.
It is a major turnaround after previous pledges to cut net migration to the tens of thousands and some commentators argue that it will reduce the incentive for employers to train up home grown talent. Even before Covid, it was reasonable to ask whether the previous cap was too ambitious to compliment the needs of a buoyant economy, but a political calculation has obviously been made that after the events of the last six months, supporting a recovery by changing planned controls on immigration is more important than keeping the pledges. However this doesn’t lessen the need to reskill resident adult workers who have either lost their jobs or are under threat of redundancy.
The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) is among those who define lifelong learning as being from cradle to grave and you will find our independent training provider (ITP) members very involved in delivering learning provision at all stages of the cycle, for example in the training of early years educators in local nurseries. Teaching assistants in schools can now become qualified via an apprenticeship and it won’t be long before the teaching profession itself joins other professions, such as law, nursing and accountancy where an individual can become fully qualified by following the apprenticeship route. ITPs and their employer clients also offer the vast majority of opportunities on the proven traineeship programme for young people, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds, with 79% of them going on to progress into an apprenticeship, employment or further education.
The pandemic and rising unemployment have undoubtedly generated a renewed focus on adult education in the knowledge that relaxing the planned immigration controls is not going to be enough. The policy response has to address both the skills of people who have unfortunately lost their jobs and the reskilling of adults in work, although we should recognise that the CBI/Pearson annual employer surveys have previously called for reskilling to be made a major priority because of the changing face of the workplace.
The scale of Covid’s impact on the economy means that there is no escaping the fact that government investment in adult education needs restoring after a decade of cuts. AELP’s submission for the Comprehensive Spending Review, expected at the end of November, has called for an additional £3bn to add to £1.5bn annual adult education budget and we also recommended a simplification of the various funding streams to reduce employer and learner confusion.
Longer term, we want to see the return of properly regulated Individual Skills Accounts to access all adult funding instead of the government relying on grants and procurements. Just like employers have a choice of provider with apprenticeships, each adult learner should be allowed to take their entitlement to where they like as long as quality assurance is in place.
This demand-led approach to lifelong learning is better for the learner and the economy. When the prime minister recently announced a ‘lifetime skills guarantee’, the government said that the extension of a first level 3 entitlement would be for all ages and this represents a major boost in the efforts to retrain. But next April’s extension will be accompanied by a prescribed list of eligible qualifications and while officials will take great care in drawing up a list which might be attuned to labour market needs, it does raise again long-standing concerns about Whitehall ‘picking winners’.
Demand for reskilling will vary greatly across the regions and different sectors. Of course, it won’t be possible to introduce individual skills accounts before the start of the wider entitlement but in the future, they will offer a more responsive and effective solution for adult retraining as part of the levelling up agenda.
Jane Hickie is managing director of Association of Employment and Learning Providers