Government gave a clear message today that the task of rebalancing the economy would require a marriage of public and private efforts. Industry must take responsibility for its role.
The three guiding principles of today’s Budget according to George Osborne have been deficit reduction, enterprise and fairness. While some might quibble as to how far the cuts and spending allocations that were detailed today, and will continue to be refined over the coming year, deliver the last of these points there can be little doubt about the presence of the first two throughout the Budget clauses.
Freezes on public sector pay and benefit reforms will not have been surprising to anyone waiting for the swingeing cuts that were anticipated to mitigate the national deficit but in pursuit of enterprise it is possible to take a rather more positive attitude.
Jack Matthews, chief executive of Improve, the sector skills council for the food and drink industry is among those who do. “Everyone knew there would be pain in this Budget. But I agree that this is a Budget which rewards work and encourages enterprise. What I see is the government handing down a challenge to all of us, collectively and individually, to get the economy moving again in the way we work.
“One thing the coalition clearly believes in is the value of investment in skills in order to make the economy more productive. Despite all the cuts, it has committed £3.5 billion this year to the Skills Funding Agency to support training places, of which £550 million will be used directly to fund Apprenticeships and a further £757 million to fund other forms of work-based learning.”
However, not all are so enthusiastic about the prospects of industry skills development under the coalition. A representative of Cogent, sector skills council for science-using industries says “the cuts announced by the government have curtailed a number of activities, including the work on the Diploma in Manufacturing and Product Design and the Diploma in Engineering”.
These diplomas were developed under the last government to help engage young people in the application of their basic STEM skills and show them how those skills could be used in manufacturing and engineering careers. The diplomas themselves will continue to be delivered for the time being but the support work which was being carried out by Cogent and other to improve the delivery of teaching and raise standards for the qualification are being wound up.
With the image of manufacturing as a career destination and the provision of appropriate skills for competitive growth in UK manufacturing being such emotive topics it will concern many in the industry to learn that this work towards quality qualifications is being curtailed.
On the other hand the Budget did specify schemes for investing in and coordinating skills development around what were termed by the Chancellor as “natural economic areas”. Although Regional Development Agencies are to be abolished new local enterprise partnerships will coordinate public and private spending focused on local needs. Again Matthews sees this as a positive step “I agree with the principle behind joint investment in skills between the public and private sector. I think employers have always been prepared to put money into workforce development where they can be confident of getting returns on business performance.”