From the blog

Covid-19 recovery: Devolve authority for FE and skills

To tackle the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis, regions must be able to design their own recovery, says Lowell Williams

Last week, I was discussing the challenge of post-Covid economic recovery with the prime minister at Dudley College of Technology. Now, there’s a sentence I thought I’d never write.

The prime minister was in Dudley, at the local FE college – my old college. He chose Dudley and the college as the backdrop for his major “build, build, build” speech. I had invited the PM to come to Dudley some time back, to turn the first sod on the college’s new Institute of Technology. He didn’t jump at the chance then. But there he was on Tuesday, in post-Covid Dudley, standing right in front of me, talking to the nation.

Those who followed the recent electoral swings in towns like Dudley may argue that the PM’s presence was politically motivated. But I read his choice of Dudley as something more. 

First, it was a very public recognition that the post-Covid recession will fall hard, desperately hard, on towns like Dudley and regions like the West Midlands. Therefore, policy must drive recovery in the regions and not just our capital city.

Second, he recognised that to get people back into work we need a workforce with the right skills. “Build, build, build” must fuel inclusive growth with levelling up more than a slogan. Further education colleges have been overlooked and underinvested in for too long, the PM said. Colleges have a major role to play in the country’s economic recovery. Absolutely. 

So far, so good. But funding and, more importantly, well-tailored policy and action must follow these words. I, for one, am desperately concerned that the sentiment of the PM’s speech will be undermined, in practice, by clunky, poorly delivered national initiatives. It is vital that, within a national context, the government supports regions to design their own recovery so we can make the most of local opportunities and support the groups that are most vulnerable. 

Devolution to drive regional regeneration

In the West Midlands, we’re already working collaboratively to build the future, with a shared vision of a happier, healthier, better connected and more prosperous region. The West Midlands Combined Authority has taken a bold step in publishing our report, Recharge the West Midlands. WMCA is asking the PM both for £3.2 billion in funding over the next five years and the devolved authority to use these funds as best fits the region. I’m sure I heard the PM say that funds would come. I’m less clear on the devolution point and who is driving regional regeneration.

There are four main skills asks in our report:

  • Redeploy existing Education and Skills Funding Agency and apprenticeship levy funding to provide college-based courses at levels 3 to 5 for young people who might otherwise be unemployed and plug the gap in apprenticeship starts with traineeships, work-related experience training opportunities and apprenticeship wage subsidies.
  • Boost the adult education budget to support furloughed and unemployed workers by offering opportunities to retrain into jobs in in-demand sectors that are recruiting in the region, such as health and social care, logistics and business services.
  • Develop and deliver new, higher-level skills courses to increase adults’ employability in future growth sectors, particularly in green growth and electrification, 5G and digital, health and life sciences, advanced manufacturing and construction.
  • Accelerate capital funding for colleges to develop the technical facilities needed to support retraining and the rollout of T levels

Colleges West Midlands, the formal collaboration of the region’s 21 FE colleges, provides a vehicle for quickly turning these sensible and practical regional skills asks into coordinated action on the ground. But we need the devolved authority to act. 

It was great to see the PM in Dudley. If he could leave with us the powers to drive our regional recovery, that would be even better.

Lowell Williams is chair of Colleges West Midlands and former principal of Dudley College of Technology