Despite headlines that UK adult unemployment has been falling rapidly and employment has reached record highs, all is not rosy in the UK’s labour market garden. Youth unemployment, although down, is a growing concern. The youth unemployment rate is three times the adult rate and four out of ten unemployed people are aged under 25. An increasing proportion of graduates find themselves starting their working lives in non-graduate jobs.
So given the problem, what do the main political parties intend to do about it? A quick trawl through the national party manifestos provides some clues. However, while there are some differences in their approaches to post-compulsory education and training, eg around tuition fees and careers guidance, there is a fair degree of consensus and, rather surprisingly, a distinct lack of new ideas.
Although only Labour and the Liberal Democrats talk specifically about expanding vocational education and training, nearly all the parties are committed to a greater or lesser degree (no pun intended) to increasing the number of apprentices, improving their quality and promoting higher level qualifications. On the latter, the Conservatives want to ‘roll out more Degree Apprenticeships’, the Liberal Democrats want to expand HNDs and HNCs and Higher Level Apprenticeships while Labour are looking to introduce a new Technical Degree. Both the Labour and Conservative parties are committed to putting more power in the hands of employers both to design and deliver apprenticeships – although the impact of various pilots set up to test greater employer ownership under the Coalition Government is still unknown. The problem is that creating apprenticeships means creating new jobs, and with higher levels becoming the norm, higher quality jobs. However, it is far from clear that we are seeing a shift towards high quality work in the labour market, especially for young people.
There is also a need to support young people who are less academic and not necessarily on track for apprenticeships or degrees. Conservative and Labour want to introduce a Youth Allowance for young unemployed people, to replace Jobseeker’s Allowance, with some differences over benefit entitlement and mandatory training and/or work experience. Both approaches place the burden on young people to find jobs, although some may argue that the real problem is lack of opportunities. To address this issue, Labour say they will introduce a Compulsory Jobs Guarantee for young people unemployed for over a year. Meanwhile the Conservatives rather sweepingly vow to ‘abolish youth unemployment’ while not spelling out how.
It is on Higher Education that differences emerge with the prospect of yet more changes to the student finance system. The Greens want to end tuition fees altogether and pay all students maintenance grants. UKIP want free tuition fees for science, technical, education, maths or medical graduates who work in their discipline for at least five years. Labour want to cut tuition fees to £6,000 a year and the Liberal Democrats, still feeling the backlash over their change of heart over this issue in the last Parliament, want to ‘review existing university finance system in the light of existing reforms’. The Conservatives, on the other hand, make no mention of tuition fees.
Whatever the alternatives young people are unlikely to be able to make effective choices about further study or training if they do not have good information. The absence of effective independent careers advice in schools has been highlighted by Ofsted and others (1). However only Labour has made a commitment to a ‘new independent careers system ‘offering personalised face-to-face advice, while the Liberal Democrats rather vaguely promise to ‘improve’ careers advice in schools and colleges.
Overall it seems a fairly lack lustre list. Whether that is due to a pragmatic commitment to making affordable promises or a lack of imagination is not clear. However with three of the five national parties wanting to extend voting to 16 year olds it does indicate a lack of ambition as to what they can offer them in policy terms.
Jim Hillage, BA, MSc, FRSA, MBE is the Director of Research at the Institute for Employment Studies, an independent research centre based in Brighton and London. He is able to draw on over 35 years’ experience of researching into employment including higher education and vocational training. In 2007, Jim was awarded the MBE for services to skills and training.