With the economic impact of coronavirus causing sharp rises in unemployment, London’s adult education and training offer must be ready to help Londoners through the crisis.
Like other urban centres across the world, London isn’t insulated from the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic despite having a strong economy, with a highly-skilled workforce to boot. The economic impact of COVID-19 has already been staggering. Universal Credit claims have soared and employer surveys indicate that nearly a quarter of UK companies expect to cut jobs permanently.
London needs a strong further education sector
In the face of this adversity, London needs a strong further education sector more now than ever. Courses and apprenticeships can provide important education and training for school-leavers and for adults to help them acquire new skills, meet job-specific requirements, or benefit from mid-career top-up.
However, participation in further education is low and has been falling in London, and the sector faces some significant challenges. Even before coronavirus hit, the sector was stretched, having borne the brunt of funding cuts in education over the last decade. Public spending on adult education was reduced by 75 per cent reduction between 2010 and 2019 in real terms. In other words, as the UK recovered from the 2008 recession, the government severely reduced the ability of the adult education system to cope with future recessions and increased demand for training.
While some of this funding has been replaced by the Apprenticeship Levy, it is questionable whether this would help in a recession. Because the levy is paid by employers as a proportion of their payroll there is a risk, for example, that this funding will be little help to people who are out of work and want to re-skill, as employers will understandably prioritise the need of their existing employees.
Despite these difficulties, there are three reactive steps that could strengthen the further education sector in the face of the current crisis.
Funding for courses and apprenticeships for the unemployed
First – this may seem obvious but won’t be an easy task – it will be crucial to ensure that there is funding available for courses and apprenticeships for those who have lost jobs through the crisis and who need to reskill. The people who were working in February 2020 but are now having to fall back on Universal Credit are unlikely to want to spend their savings – if they have any – on a course.
Boost ability to deliver courses online
Second, it is well worth boosting colleges and employers’ ability to deliver courses and apprenticeships online. Aside from the millions formerly employed or self-employed that need new opportunities, a cohort of hundreds of thousands of young people will be moving into a now much weaker labour market, or training. We should at least ensure that the routes into employment and progression in the more dynamic sectors are still wide open, even if social distancing rules remain.
Give the mayor greater powers over skills budget
And third, while the Adult Education Budget has been devolved to the mayor, the rest of the skills budget remains under the gift of central government, making it a difficult for the mayor to take a whole systems approach to prioritise London’s economic needs and tackling new and persistent skills gaps.
London is a resilient city; we’ve seen it bounce back and thrive after crises in its history. The 2008 crash saw some activities (like tech, business services, hospitality and the cultural industries) emerge in a strong position – and we can hope that the same will happen in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis.
And in the long term, losing some low quality jobs from the labour market may not be negative, provided there are good opportunities for workers in affected industries and those who are new to the workforce to upskill and transition into new work.