Labour has criticised the lifetime skills guarantee announced in the Queen’s speech earlier this week, with the party’s shadow education secretary questioning why “a promised ‘guarantee’ will not, in fact, be available for some of those who will need it most”.
In her speech to assembled parliamentarians this week, the Queen announced: “Legislation will support a lifetime skills guarantee to enable flexible access to high-quality education and training throughout people’s lives”.
In the Commons’ debate that followed the speech yesterday (Thursday 13 May), Kate Green warned the lifetime skills guarantee “is not guaranteed” for many in-need learners, who would only qualify for student loans. She also criticised government ministers for not improving maintenance support for further education students in line with higher education.
Augar said that those in further education should receive the same maintenance support as those in higher education. Does the Secretary of State agree with that proposal, and if he does, why is it absent from the Queen’s Speech?
– Kate Green, Labour
Said Green: “You cannot use [the Lifetime Skills Guarantee] if you are already qualified to Level 3, you cannot use it unless you are getting a qualification that the Secretary of State has decided he thinks is valuable, and you cannot use it if you need maintenance support while you learn.
“If you are already qualified to Level 3 in your existing field but need to retrain for a new industry, there is nothing on offer for you. Ministers have chosen to close the door on millions of people who need to retrain, and need to do so now.”
She described herself as “at a loss to understand the Secretary of State’s position” on the guarantee – which she intimated was not as helpful as the bill’s language suggested.
The government bill guarantees learners can gain a level 3 qualification, such as an A-levels or apprenticeship, without fees if they do not already have one. Learners also can access four years of education towards levels 4, 5 and 6 qualifications via a tuition fee-style model, an idea proposed in the government-commissioned Post-18 Review of Education and Funding. The Augar review, however, did not use the word guarantee, instead referring to its proposal as a lifetime skills “allowance”.
On maintenance support, Green said: “Augar said that those in further education should receive the same maintenance support as those in higher education. Does the Secretary of State agree with that proposal, and if he does, why is it absent from the Queen’s Speech?”
Green attacked the Conservative party record on further education, with funding cut “almost in half, and apprenticeship starts among under 25-year-olds down by 40% since 2016”. She said the party’s university tuition fees policy “by the government’s own admission, directly reduced the number of adults in education”.
Freedom of Speech Bill
Labour’s shadow education secretary also criticised the government for proposing the Freedom of Speech (Higher Education), warning that the new rule might allow a Holocaust denier to bring action against a university or student union if refused a stage. She said that the universities minister had been “forced to admit yesterday that this flawed legislation could have dangerous and troubling consequences, including potentially protecting Holocaust deniers”.
Holocaust denial is lawful, but inciting violence or hatred of colour, race, nationality, or ethnicity is forbidden. Asked during a Radio 4 interview if the bill could invariably defend the right of Holocaust deniers to speak on campuses, Michelle Donelan said: “Yes”. This admission was later firmly rebuffed by Number 10, which said the government would not tolerate antisemitism.
Green told MPs that in supporting the bill, they were “handing over the power to determine whether free speech complaints on campus are justified to the Office for Students, a government regulator with an unqualified former Conservative MP appointed as its chair”.
The bill provides a route for students, staff, job applicants, and speakers to refer a complaint to the OfS if they have “suffered adverse consequences as a result of action or inaction of [a university] governing body”.
In the explanatory notes published alongside the wording of the bill, the government estimated that the new rules and regulations would cost the sector between £4.6m and £5.3m per year. “Registered higher education providers and students’ unions are the main affected groups that are expected to incur costs including: familiarisation costs; compliance costs: the direct costs of complying with the regulation and enforcement; and administrative burden,” the notes explain.