There’s strong argument to suggest that Britain’s approach to foundation and vocational training is in no way sufficient to equip the UK economy with the necessary skills to compete in global markets in years to come. We once had a two-tier structure with a small proportion of academically qualified engineers and a majority of apprenticeship-qualified technicians. The Blair government changed this dramatically, encouraging 50% of all young people to go to university. The result is that Britain has a similar structure to that of the US – graduates and low skill workers.
But who’s right and how should UK approach its skills training?
In Germany and the USA
Germany has a very distinctive and valued technician skill-level vocational training managed by the famous German partnership between management and unions. The German vocational system is legendary. So too the liberal markets system (in USA and Canada), where there is much less emphasis on vocational middle range skills and more on producing bachelors level graduates. Under state control Korea went rapidly from having a strong technician sector providing middle range skills (emulating Germany) to having a strong graduate system (emulating USA and Canada). So what’s best for these nation-states? Who’s right?
In Korea and China
The important thing about Korea is a) that the change it made mirrored the change in its product markets and b) that the change was state-directed in response to its changing economy. In the late 90s, Korea started to lose out to Philippines and Indonesia and then ultimately China in providing low cost manufacturing. There are many references to this shift: Korean workers wanted more and quite quickly this rapidly industrialising country moved from low to high wages (for at least half the population). This model has been followed by many countries and commentators consider that China will eventually go the same way. It’s just that there are more of them so it will happen region by region there.
Should UK have a two-tier professional training?
The question might be re-phrased: what type of global markets will exist for Britain in the coming years and hence what skills will be needed? A fatalist would no doubt say that the drift in UK from technician skills training gained via apprenticeships to graduate theory-centred qualifications has simply followed our loss of manufacturing and growth of service. That suggests that we don’t need technicians any more. We need graduates to design the knowledge-based systems for low-skill, low cost workers to sit in front of and drive. Korea’s dual-track employment system mirrors this and that’s the way they went.
If Britain’s economy is going to remain as it is now, we will need the foundation training/tertiary education system that we currently have – the only thing we have that’s different from Korea is that many of our low-wage workers are got through migration from poorer member states of the European Union.