Skills and Thrills: General Election 2024 Manifesto Analysis 

Policy Connect’s Education and Skills team have spent the last week analysing the manifesto commitments for post-16 education and the skills system. Let’s examine what Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats are proposing. 


Our recent Skills 2030 report found that reshaping the current skills decision-making apparatus is a major priority. In this vein, Labour has promised a comprehensive skills strategy overseen by “Skills England”, a new public body comprised of actors from businesses, training providers, unions and national and local government. It is also brilliant to see a greater role left for devolved regional actors to shape skills provision, given the success of existing attempts at skills devolution in places like Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, and West Yorkshire. Here, Labour is promising to devolve adult skills funding to Combined Authorities.  

Labour’s most contentious skills policy is its plans to reform the apprenticeship levy into a “growth and skills levy” so that employers can use it to fund a broader range of training beyond just apprenticeships. A major criticism of “levy-opening” proposals like this has been that they would reduce the already declining availability of lower-level apprenticeships for younger people. It is noteworthy here that Labour has, in tandem, committed to a “youth guarantee” to tackle the growing NEET problem, promising all 18–21-year-olds the option of an apprenticeship, other training or help to find work. If effectively implemented, these policies together could (1) reprioritise young people as the focus of the apprenticeship system and (2) allow more flexibility in what training employers offer to their more experienced employees.  

These outcomes would turn us away from the current all-age, all-level apprenticeship system. However, we can support these aims given that the country needs to prioritise improving worker productivity and tackle the NEET issue. The former is crucial to aid economic growth, and the latter is critical given the lifelong scarring effects NEET experiences have for young people. Policy Connect’s call to open up the levy in Skills 2030 attempted to promote these outcomes by combining flexibility and reserving 50% of funds for apprenticeships (at levels 2 and 3) for entry-level talent.  

On Higher Education (HE), Labour commits to scrapping short funding cycles for key research and development institutions in favour of 10-year budgets. The hope is to foster more meaningful partnerships with industry, keeping the UK at the forefront of global innovation. Such efforts would include supporting university spinouts, a recommendation we pushed forth in Empowering Innovation.  

Otherwise, Labour’s skills and HE policy agenda remains vague. Taking steps to “better integrate further and higher education” is welcome in a tertiary sector that wants to be given the incentives to work together, but what would they entail? Sector engagement with a potential Labour government and its civil service would be crucial to shaping these less fleshed-out initiatives.  

The Conservatives 

The Conservatives aim to take the skills system in a rather different direction to Labour. Most notably, their manifesto is the first in decades to actively advocate for less higher education. They have suggested their plans would reduce student numbers by 13% at least. Domestic student numbers would shrink due to the closing of “poor-quality” university courses, measured by considering drop-out rates, job progression and future earnings potential. International student numbers could drop substantially due to a 25% increase in the cost of visas. 

The manifesto contrasts its aims to reduce HE provision with a target of having 100,000 more people starting apprenticeships every year by 2029. We certainly support calls to increase apprenticeship numbers given their benefit for many young people. However, it is hard to justify doing so at the expense of the accessibility of HE to young people.  

The scrapping of “poor-quality” course numbers would likely work to reduce the accessibility of HE to disadvantaged young people. So-called “poor-quality” courses, measured by comparatively weaker job and earning prospects straight after university, often have an overwhelmingly high number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Analysis shows that educational inequality before university often explains why disadvantaged students taking these courses do less well in the graduate labour market. Marking courses as “poor quality” and worthy of scrapping because of continuation, completion and progression rates (also referred to as Condition B3 by the OfS) fails to see the educational and developmental value they may have for these students despite their challenges.   

Disadvantaged young people should have undergraduate degrees fully accessible to them alongside the wide range of other options in tertiary education – including apprenticeships, Further Education (FE) and other training. 8 in 10 students financially benefit over their lifetime from a university degree, and a degree can bring many other benefits. HE has a strong track record in promoting social mobility. We should work to promote the accessibility of tertiary education in general rather than play the options off against each other.  

By contrast, the manifesto promises some welcome measures on FE. We are glad to see our call in Skills 2030 to address pay in the FE sector taken up. £30,000 tax-free bonus payments over five years to new FE college teachers who teach in priority areas and STEM and technical subjects will make a difference to FE's recruitment and retention crisis. Similarly, it is good to see a commitment to ensure 100% of colleges have access to a mental health support team.  

The Liberal Democrats 

There are many ideas unique to the Lib Dem manifesto, often mirroring recent policy recommendations we have made at Policy Connect. On HE, the Lib Dems have committed to reinstating maintenance grants, a recommendation made in Digitally Enhanced Blended Learning. In addition, the Lib Dems have heeded our call in Upskilling Industry to remove international students from net migration figures. 

On skills more widely, a “Lifelong Skills Grant” – a £5000 grant for all adults to spend on a wide range of education – moves us in the right direction regarding lifelong learning. Heading our call in Skills 2030 to expand pupil premium funding beyond schools into colleges for students up to 18 is crucial, given that educational disadvantage does not end at 16. It is also great to see a call to expand the “missing middle” of level 4 and 5 qualifications, which our Higher Technical Qualifications report highlighted as an underappreciated issue with the current skills system. 

A commitment that stands out is that, unlike Labour and the Conservatives, the Lib Dems have promised to invest in colleges by tackling crumbling college buildings, increasing funding per pupil above inflation every year, and considering exempting colleges from VAT (as for most other educational institutions). These measures would be real wins for a sector with a decade-long trend of declining funding that needs more support to help deliver its full potential.  

Visions of the future 

While skills policy is still not at the forefront of any of the parties' campaigns, it is good to see that their growing talk about skills in recent years has filtered into their manifestos. A range of different visions for the future of the skills system are on offer. Of course, a party’s manifesto is only a statement of a political party’s intent before the next parliament. What the party that wins power actually implements in the years to come may well be different. We would not want to place strong bets on where things stand in 5 years! However, what seems certain is that post-16 education will change course in the next parliament.  

Dr. Peter Wilson – Research & Impact Manager

Alyson Hwang – Senior Researcher