How else can we support learners to upskill?

By Marek Zemanik, Senior Public Policy Adviser.

Could the tide be turning on upskilling and reskilling policy? With additional funding announced in the Scottish Budget for the National Transition Training Fund (aimed at adults at risk of redundancy) and applications for Individual Training Accounts open for another year, it certainly looks like lifelong learning is seen as a crucial part of the skills response to the pandemic. 

It was also encouraging to see Douglas Ross MP – the Scottish Conservative Leader – give skills a prominent place in his speech to Conference. The announcement of a £500 Retrain to Rebuild scheme – effectively a boosted and expanded ITA offer – matches some of our own calls made earlier this year in our Skills to Grow report. In a skills roundtable Douglas held a few days after the Conference, we highlighted a few other considerations that we thought policy-makers should keep in mind. This blog expands on some of those thoughts. 

Employer buy-in 

Firstly, designing any form of individual learning account will require trade-offs, with benefits and challenges to any type of design. On balance, we do think that targeting is important – be it by sector or by learner need. An untargeted scheme is more likely to benefit those already engaged with the skills system. 

The other reason why we believe targeting is important is that we should seek to get as much employer buy-in as possible. This means employers supportive of the skills development of their workers, agreeing progression routes and topping-up any government funding. Individual agency and choice in learning is a key advantage of any ILA scheme, but it should ideally be matched by routes that specifically address employer skills needs. 

Tuition costs 

Secondly, the level of award needs to be carefully considered. Even a boost to £500 will not be enough for any meaningful retraining unless there is significant co-investment. Just to illustrate, the new micro-credentials that were developed by Scottish universities at the beginning of the crisis come at a cost in the range of £450-£800. Furthermore, the deeper interventions in the oil and gas sector had an average cost in the £2,500-£3,000 range. 

In our manifesto we have argued a buildable scheme, where eligible learners can accumulate an entitlement over several years, would be preferable. This would both allow learners to think about their skills in the longer-term, but also unlock more intensive courses. 

Income support 

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, policy-makers tend to focus on the costs of tuition to the exclusion of broader considerations. This is most evident in the debates around higher education fees, but applies to upskilling and reskilling opportunities too. 

The fact is that that tuition costs are not the only barrier for many learners. Providing income or living cost support for some may be just as important an intervention as covering the cost of learning. This is especially true if a course results in the learner having to reduce their working hours and thus having their income temporarily drop. Of course, some employees can use the limited (and not very well known) right to request training leave and there are employers who offer paid training leave. But this isn’t available to self-employed workers and is more likely to be offered by the largest of employers. 

For the lowest of earners, such income support could be provided through UK-wide changes to Universal Credit work requirements (allowing people to train while they claim UC), but the Scottish Government has some options in this area too - through student support or indeed social security. 

The latest example of a new type of student support is the £100 weekly allowance for young people enrolled in the new Pathway Apprenticeships, which were developed as part of the Young Person’s Guarantee. The allowance is paid by Skills Development Scotland but routed through individual training providers. It is not inconceivable that a similar approach could be taken to provide additional and targeted support for learners using an enhanced ILA to develop their skills. 

But there may be an even better way – using the devolved social security powers. Looking at some of the schemes that the government has introduced so far, these powers have already been used creatively and cooperatively. But the broader power to create benefits in areas of devolved responsibility remains unused. For context, here are some of the key schemes that the Scottish Government has put in place: 

  • Best Start Grants – three different payments at different stages of children’s lives, introduced due to the devolution of the benefits of the Regulated Social Fund (replacing and evolving the Sure Start Maternity Grant)

  • Carer’s Allowance Supplement and Young Carer Grant - increasing Carer’s Allowance by 13% and a new £300 for young carers, introduced following the devolution of carer’s benefits.

  • Scottish Child Payment – significant investment to tackle child poverty, a weekly payment of £10, designed as a top up to Universal Credit (and other qualifying benefits before the rollout)

  • Job Start Payment - a one off payment of £250 (or £400 for parents) for young people moving into employment, introduced cooperatively through an order by the UK Government. 

That is four different approaches taken to designing a Scottish social security system within the devolved powers. However, the Scotland Act 2016 also gives the Scottish Parliament powers to create new social security benefits in areas not otherwise connected with reserved matters. There has been little discussion about how this could be used, with some ideas floated in relation to housing and mental health. 

Using this power to design a benefit providing income support for learners for the short amount of time they spend out of work or with reduced incomes due to skills development strikes us as a creative way to address a problem in an area of devolved responsibility. There would be challenges with appropriate targeting (individual and sectoral) and interaction with other benefits. Limits on time or amount would need to be carefully set, probably differentiated by the type of skills intervention. It would likely require working with the UK Government if it is to reach UC claimants on the lowest incomes. But challenges can be overcome when the benefits are worth it – and reaching those furthest away from the skills system is certainly worth it. 

We included this idea in our Skills to Grow report and the CIPD Scotland election manifesto as part of our call to reform and expand Individual Learning Accounts, but there is no reason why this could not be designed as a broader intervention. Supporting upskilling for Scotland’s recovery, reaching those that need it most and using devolved powers creatively – what’s not to like?

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