Higher Education Research Centre
Left to right: Dr Kara McGann, Policy Executive, IBEC; Dr. Claire Gubbins, Senior Lecturer in HRM & Organisational Behaviour, DCU Business School; Professor Ewart Keep, Director of the Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE) Oxford University; Professor Maria Slowey, Director of Higher Education Research Centre (HERC), DCU; Professor Philip O'Connell, Director, Geary Institute, UCD; Dr Bryan Fields, SOLAS

Dec 9th seminar

Empowering Through Upskilling? 

The HERC seminar ‘Empowering Through Upskilling? Evaluation of a Policy Response to Globalisation’ was held on 9th December at DCU. This expanded the theme of higher education to the wider skills agenda taken up in a previous seminar.

In her opening address, HERC director Professor Maria Slowey noted that there is “a dearth of high-quality empirical research” informing the contentious debate about skills training. She called for greater co-operation between researchers and policy makers to set the foundation for “evidence-based policy development”. To this end, she introduced the keynote speaker Professor Ewart Keep as an expert in skills policy and employer engagement who has also advised parliamentary committees in Westminster and Holyrood. Professor Keep currently holds a chair in Education, Training and Skills at Oxford University and is director of the Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE).

Professor Keep's Keynote Address: As successive UK governments have pursued the goal of up-skilling the workforce to boost productivity and raise income levels, Professor Keep indicated that governments have made “a fetish of qualifications” as a “magic proxy” for addressing a wide range of social problems. In reference to the New Labour administration (1997-2010), he characterised the UK skills policy as a story of “good intentions that didn’t pan out”. With £12 billion spent on skills training and poor results, he suggested that the UK experience has a cautionary relevance for other jurisdictions. In our current period of reduced public funding and rising in-work poverty, he identified a pressing need to understand the advantages and limitations of skills polices as well as a need to identify alternative polices which might better address employment issues.

He outlined a number of points that he regarded as flawed assumptions underpinning the UK skills policy. Principally, he argued that policy has been based on a simplistic understanding of human capital theory, which re-theorised education as a means to drive the economy. In their efforts to respond to globalisation, UK policy makers assumed that improved skills, in conjunction with a closer alignment between supply and demand, would lead to higher productivity and growth, reduced poverty, and increased social mobility. The notion of a “knowledge economy” was a prominent feature of policy thinking and gave rise to an “agreeable fantasy” in which low-skilled workers would be replaced by “knowledge workers”. Consequently, expectations of increased living standards became grounded in the individual worker’s aspirations rather than traditional collective bargaining.  

However, the desire to raise the level of qualifications among workers has been out of step with the demand for qualified workers. Government policy subscribed to the “supply-push effect” which supposed that an increased supply of skills would create its own demand. In practice, the supply-push effect proved much smaller and more conditional than policy makers imagined. One unintended consequence has been the rise of over-qualified workers. A 2006 Skills Survey found that although there were 7.35 million UK jobs which did not require a qualification, only 2.47 million of these workers had no qualification. Professor Keep indicated that the prevalence of over-qualification has further consequences in terms of wage scarring effects, a reduction in wage pressure, the rise of unpaid internships, and a process of “trading down” as graduates take on non-graduate work.

The Train to Gain Initiative: Focusing in detail on the vocational training initiative Train to Gain, Professor Keep remarked that the scheme was noteworthy for being designed by the UK Treasury, overseeing public finance and economic polices, rather than stakeholders. He outlined a number of ways in which the conception and execution of the scheme was flawed:

  • The decision to fund the scheme by defunding existing adult learning initiatives was “a policy paradox” which reflected the distance in approach between the UK and other EU nations where vocational learning is strongly linked to lifelong learning.
  • The scheme over-estimated the role that qualifications play in recruitment and selection for low-end jobs as employers often rely on word-of-mouth recommendations rather than qualifications.
  • The scheme over-estimated the market demand for workers with qualifications. Consequently, while Government policy had the objective of raising aspirations among the working class, the labour market requires a substantial number of people willing to do low-end work.
  • The qualification standards set for the scheme were arbitrary. The government designated National Qualifications Framework (NQF) Level 2 (GCSEs with grades A-C) as the threshold for employability but evidence has shown that those with Level 2 qualifications often fare little better than those with only a NQF Level 1 qualification (GCSEs with grades D-G). 
  • It was expected that Train to Gain would shift skills funding from public providers and institutions to employers. In practice, however, workplace provision proved very expensive to organise despite the high-levels of subsidy offered to firms.
  • By trying to meet the needs of employers (productivity aims) and individuals (social justice aims), the scheme failed to meet the needs of either. Employers not workers chose the qualifications to be taken and as the means of assessment/accreditation was limited, it did little to alter employers’ negative views of training.

In assessing how skills policies might improve workers’ position in the labour-market, Professor Keep referenced three categories of power for workers: (1)  Labour Process Power whereby higher skill levels give workers more power over the way they work because employers allow greater discretion to higher skilled workers;  (2) Labour Market Power whereby workers gain the power to bargain for better pay and working conditions with existing or alternative employers because their skills have become vital to the productive process; and (3) Political Enlightenment whereby access to knowledge broadly empowers workers to challenge existing power relationships in both the workplace and wider society. 

To achieve these ends, Professor Keep called for greater policy emphasis on economic development, business improvement, and broader forms of workplace innovation and productivity enhancement. In contrast to the London government, he noted that the Scottish government has taken steps to improve employment relations by helping employers to change work organisation and by fostering a return to collective bargaining.

Panel Presentations: The keynote speech was followed by presentations from Dr Bryan Fields, Director of Curriculum Development/Programme Innovation at SOLAS; Dr. Claire Gubbins, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director of Learning Innovation and Knowledge Research Centre, DCU Business School; Dr Kara McGann, a policy executive at IBEC; and Professor Philip O'Connell, director of the UCD Geary Institute for Public Policy.

Dr Fields outlined the wide-ranging institutional reform of the current Irish approach to skills and training through the formation of SOLAS. He explained that the design of SOLAS, which takes on the primary role of “a funding co-ordinating agency”, differs considerably from its predecessor - the training and employment authority FAS. In their contributions, Dr. Gubbins and Dr McGann outlined their views of the relationship between employees, skills, and employers. They highlighted the need for life-long learning skills which will help workers self-learn and adapt to changing conditions. Dr Gubbins further observed the difficulty of using models of the past to predict the future needs of skills and training while Dr McGann noted that skills training needs to focus on “employability for life” rather than the attainment of a “job for life”. Addressing workplace practices and training, Professor O'Connell argued that training is inversely related to need and exasperates inequality. While those with higher skills are more likely to seek training, the unemployed, part-time workers and older workers are far less likely to receive any training. In reference to work practices, he noted that when workers are involved in highly participative and consultative working arrangements, they are more likely to both train and earn more.

In the discussion that followed, questions were raised about the role of community and education values and the imbalance in education access across society. In response Professor Keep questioned the emphasis on post-compulsory education for young adults over and above opportunities for older adults to re-enter education or switch careers. Professor O'Connell discussed the problem of rampant over-qualification across Europe in terms of the disjuncture between micro and macro levels. There is little evidence, he said, that having high numbers of graduates leads to economic growth. Marie Bourke, representing the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, outlined how the department is trying to ensure that further education training is more relevant for future skills by assessing patterns of foreign-direct investment and international trends. In his concluding comment, Professor Ewart Keep suggested that rather than continuing to pursue a narrow and short-term focus on skills supply, public policy needs to appreciate the wider personal and societal benefits generated by adult learning.

The outcomes of this seminar, as with others in the series Higher Education in Challenging Times: Questioning the Unquestioned, will be taken up in a forthcoming publication.