Beyond Technocracy: Unpacking the Political Values in Skills Policy

When politicians and policymakers enact public policies, they are making explicit or implicit choices about the political values that should shape our society. In some policy areas, this is easy to see. A political party that chooses to reduce welfare benefits to pay for tax cuts is prioritising economic freedom over poverty and economic equality. But sometimes the technocratic language in which policy decisions are framed can make it easy to forget the political values behind policy choices. 

Skills policy is an area where technocratic framing tends to dominate, and arguments focus on what is “most likely to work.” However, even though political values are not at the forefront of these conversations, we cannot fully judge a policy's attractiveness without being aware of them. What you deem to “work” heavily depends on what outcome you want to achieve, which will depend on your ethical and political convictions. Even when we all express a desire for a general outcome – for example, “equality of opportunity” – there is no guarantee of agreement. Your vision of equality of opportunity and mine may look very different because of our different political ideologies.  

To break skills policy out of the technocratic box, we need to consider questions of political philosophy and examine what outcomes it should aim to achieve and who policies should aim to benefit. So, let us consider the political dividing lines in two current skills policy debates: reforming the apprenticeship levy and reforming age 16-19 qualifications.  

Prioritise Growth or Reducing Inequality? 

Should the core goal of skills policy be to drive economic growth or tackle social inequality?  Well-targeted investments in skills can often promote growth and reduce inequality at the same time. Skills investment creates more economic output by reducing skills gaps and creates a higher-skilled workforce that is more productive. Targeted investment can also reduce inequality. Education tends to improve people’s lives – it significantly promotes their job prospects, income, wealth, health, romantic life, civic participation, and much more. If we want to reduce the inequalities between people in terms of the overall quality of the lives they lead, we can invest in the skills of those with less education. 

But we do face trade-offs between the goals. Maximising growth would suggest the government invest any additional available money where it has the biggest growth impact, even if this means investing in people who are already well-trained and have good prospects. For example, it could imply spending money on MBAs for PhD graduates to improve their prospects of setting up high-growth companies rather than investing in people without tertiary education. Reducing inequality – and related calls for social justice, equality of opportunity or social mobility – points against this. Any additional money should instead go towards less advantaged individuals. 

The growth-inequality trade-off is particularly relevant to the current debate about reforming the apprenticeship levy. The levy is a 0.5% tax on large employers that funds apprenticeships within large companies and SMEs. It currently collects a significant amount of the funds spent on skills in the UK, raising over £3 billion a year spent on training. The current system allows employers to choose who they spend this money on, and an increasing number is being spent on upskilling older, more qualified individuals. 

Various inequality-minded organisations have called for reforms to the levy to ensure that less senior and less educated staff (who are typically less advantaged) receive more of the training the levy funds. However, one could justify leaving employers flexible here on productivity and growth grounds: they are (in theory) identifying the best places to invest to maximise their firm's profits. On this view, the significant levy funds spent on management and leadership apprenticeships for senior, higher-paid staff might enhance productivity more than spending on entry-level staff (and there is evidence that improved management would help UK productivity). In navigating the levy debate, you ultimately have to take a view on whether to prioritise investments that reduce inequality or whether you are happy to enhance productivity regardless of who gets the additional training. 

Learner Autonomy 

To what extent should young adults have the autonomy to determine their educational pathway? Currently, after 16, young adults can receive state support to choose almost any subjects they want to study. In effect, they are largely free to study their preferred subjects based on their evaluation of the economic prospects, their personal interests, parental influence, and a wide range of other factors. However, two ongoing reforms of 16-19 education being led by the Department for Education (DfE) would reduce this educational autonomy and have the state be more prescriptive: (1) defunding many BTECs and (2) introducing an Advanced British Standard, which would make it mandatory to study English and Maths to 18. 

People with higher numeracy and literacy have better lifetime wages (for instance, those who do Maths A level). The “poor-quality” BTECs being defunded are those the government regards as doing little to improve learners’ wages, such as horticulture. So, the government is, in effect, trading off learner autonomy so that the population has higher wages. There are two types of justification available to the DfE here. Firstly, it can make a case for paternalism: a learner’s reduced educational choice is good for the learner herself because it will lead her to have better economic prospects (which she is likely to want to some degree). Another justification is that it is economically beneficial for society: over time, it leads to a society where people generally have better job prospects, higher wages, pay more taxes to fund social services and fill skills needs. Whether you want to argue for or against the DfE’s plans, you will benefit from considering how these justifications for reducing learner autonomy hold up.  

Let’s Talk About Values 

I hope I have made clear that talk of political values and goals should be more prevalent in discussions of skills policy. There are notable political values at stake that need to be weighed up in the debate on levy reform and reforming age 16-19 qualifications. Political philosophers often turn to political theories and principles to solve cases of trade-offs like these (with John Rawls’s work being the most renowned). I don’t expect policymakers to become political philosophers! However, a more open discussion of what is at stake for growth, inequality, and learner autonomy can only help improve skills policymaking. I hope that is a goal we can all get behind.