After the brief diversion last week to deal with partisan squabbles, I’d like to return to the positive policies which I’d like to argue for if elected again. This week, I’ll look at immigration and training, issues which are in my view more closely linked than is generally realised. As with my economic discussion last time, I apologise for length – but if we want politics that go beyond sound bites, we need a space for serious discussion.
Why don’t we train the nurses we need?
Let me give a specific example. We have a shortage of British-trained nurses; that’s why the NHS is highly dependent on people born elsewhere. That in itself isn’t a terrible thing – if you’re ill and someone is looking after you well, it would be perverse to demand to see her passport. However, it reflects a training problem in Britain. The number of nurses rained in Britain has fallen steadily, by over 10,000 since 2010. And my understanding is that the Government is reducing the number of training places for nurses further, to save money. Consequently, NHS managers are actively recruiting in Eastern Europe, with a 50% rise in foreign recruitment last year. It is often cheaper to take someone who has already studied nursing abroad than it is to train people already here. The details are here:
This is short-sighted, isn’t it? It’s also why anti-immigrant parties are a distraction from the real issue. High immigration of workers doing skilled work is not a cause of economic problems but a symptom of a poor educational system. It’s ridiculous and unfair to blame Romanian or Bulgarian nurses for agreeing to come and fill a gap that we create ourselves. They are helping us out and if we need their help they should be welcomed with open arms. The problem is not that we should be scared of Bulgarian nurses; the problem is our unwillingness as a country to train people who grow up in Britain adequately.
Who is to blame?
Who should we blame for this? Not really the NHS manager – faced with a shortage of skilled staff, what is he supposed to do? The immediate problem is the Department of Health, making false economies in training. More widely, it’s all of us, choosing to elect politicians who focus on short-term benefit. Because there is no doubt that training people ourselves instead of importing them is the more expensive option, and perhaps we could knock half a penny off tax if we relied even more heavily on bringing people in to fill the gaps? But if we do, then we will end up with an under-skilled population, desperately dependent on immigration.
This is not only a nursing issue. Unlike many MPs and indeed Ministers who have spent their entire lives in politics, I’ve worked in industrial management. There is a widespread perception that colleges and universities are not producing graduates with the essential skills in sufficient numbers.
But you can spin that round and see it from the student’s viewpoint too. Going to university these days involves taking on debt up to £20,000, depending on the length of the course. Without being quite sure that this will lead directly to a good job, that’s a scary thing to do. Perhaps it’s better to take a less skilled job and not incur the debt? Yet that, too, leads Britain down the path of a low-skilled, low-wage economy – just the kind of strategic mistake that I discussed in part 1 of my personal manifesto. Is it a sensible ambition to be cheaper low-cost suppliers than China? No.
A better approach
Towards the end of my last time in Parliament, I proposed that the Government should promote university-employer partnerships, with the following elements:
The EMPLOYERS in each sector (public or private) would specify the broad outlines of the training that was needed in that sector and was currently forcing them to recruit abroad
The UNIVERSITY or other further education establishment would develop courses in consultation with the employers to meet the need
The EMPLOYERS would agree to cover a part of the student fees for an agreed number of students following these courses, and would commit to offering a trial 6-month contract after graduation to students passing the course at a required level
The GOVERNMENT would act as facilitators, providing model agreements that had worked well in other areas and sectors and insurance against failure by any of the bodies involved to deliver their obligations.
Of course these arrangements would be optional for both sides, but there are clear advantages.
Who would benefit?
The STUDENTS would benefit from the reduced course fees and have the (non-binding) option of trial employment immediately after graduation. The major concern of students that they will accumulate debt without being able to enter the job market afterwards would be removed, so long as they completed the course satisfactorily, and the level of debt would be reduced.
The EMPLOYERS would have a steady flow of graduates broadly meeting their needs, at modest cost to them compared with the cost and uncertainty of overseas recruitment.
The UNIVERSITIES and other FE establishments would attract additional students and increase their performance in placing students in work after completion.
Why are the possible snags?
When I proposed this, there was a lot of interest, and many people were disappointed that the initiative stalled when I lost my seat. But there were three objections. First, universities were concerned that the employers would make over-prescriptive demands which didn’t reflect sensible educational approaches – for example, that Microsoft would want all students to learn nothing about non-Microsoft software. To meet this objection, the detailed design is left to the university – the employers can only set the broad outlines of what they want (which will still be much more relevant than a random course in, say, Bulgaria).
Second, universities worried that this employment-focused approach would distract from more abstract subjects for which no obvious employment was in sight – theoretical mathematics, for example (which was my own PhD subject). I think that it’s important that we also provide opportunities to study abstract subjects, but it’s reasonable that we try to provide a link to employment where possible. I have never directly used my own PhD, but the course trained me in analytical thinking which has benefited me throughout my life, and I don’t think that people like me who want that will disappear just because there isn’t a direct job link.
Finally, it’s possible that a company offering a job might go into liquidation before the student graduated. But that’s why the scheme is sector-based, so that a number of employers are involved – and the government could provide some insurance backup for the sector to ensure that the commitment can be delivered.
Of course, the 6-month contracts don’t guarantee permanent employment. There is no longer such a thing as permanent employment! But countless studies show that getting into the job market is the big hurdle for young people, and 6 months is enough to find their feet and either build a good relationship with the employer or have the time to look around for alternatives.
Why hasn’t it been done?
When I described this idea before, several readers mentioned existing schemes that do exist and work quite well – for example, a Scottish university works with the computer games industry to teach students the skills needed for computer game design (which may sound frivolous but is a major industry now and an important export earner, much larger than the film industry). However, there is no national scheme, and Government is essentially passive.
There is nothing especially party political about all this. Both public and private employers would benefit, as would universities and students. But just because it doesn’t fit neatly into one or another ideological approach, no party has adopted it.
When I argue that Parliament needs more MPs with experience of normal working life, I’m not just making a self-interested point. The thing is that people who have never worked in industry or public services don’t necessarily realise what the practical problems are. If you elect me in May, I intend to return to pressing this issue – regardless of which party is in Government.
That’s part 2 of my personal manifesto. Part 3, next time, will deal with health. Thank you for reading this far! Feedback, as always, is very welcome.