Is it really the economy, stupid?

7 September 2015

In the late nineties I worked at a place called Missenden Abbey.  It was a wonderful venue with what Vince Cable would have called a ‘dual mandate’: management school during the week, residential adult education at the weekends.  Monday-to-Friday leaders from blue chip companies would helicopter in to do courses on the ‘Seven Habits’ or ‘Emotional Intelligence’.  All week, outside my stained glass window, executives would scramble over various fiendish obstacles as they undertook team-building exercises.  Until on Friday afternoons we would transform the place so it was ready for watercolour classes, passementerie, lace-making, computers for the terrified, superwoman courses, the writer’s dream journey, and other staples of liberal adult education—then.  

One of the weekday management gurus also joined us to teach at weekends.  An expert on Chinese business practice, he also taught Tai Chi—often on the same course!  Over lunch one day, we fell into talking about how China was developing economically (It was a rarer topic of discussion in the nineties).

I remember our tutor’s main thesis was that if UK PLC did not get its act together, we would all be ‘plucking chickens by 2020’.  This was the economic meltdown argument; the doomsday scenario in which all UK manufacturing headed east, and we would become a second world economy.  The UK population would be reduced to subsistence activities.  If we wanted the sort of civilised life that was epitomised by liberal adult education weekends, so the argument went, then first we had to fix the economy.

Of course this was not a new argument, even then.  Bill Clinton’s 1992 US Presidential Campaign had focussed on, among other things, “the economy, stupid”.  Economic growth was wholly part of the progressive agenda.  People wanted jobs and prosperity as a key part of a happy and fulfilled life.  

A major part of that was ensuring that people in the US, existing citizens and new arrivals, had the skills to contribute and help the economy grow.  Some of this would be re-skilling workers from industries that were winding down (shipyards, automotive), some was basic English training so immigrants had the first step on the ladder of advancement.

Sound familiar?  The rationale for state intervention (and funding) was to follow market failure; to intervene where employers and individuals would not or could not.  But it was also about the economic need, and a narrow view of what an economy is.  For example, it did not include the whole volunteering and sharing economy; the one where people help out their families or communities unpaid, or for other than pecuniary motives.  Some said “it’s the economy stupid” was based on a stupid (or at least a very basic) view of what an economy was. 

Of course, we live in a globalised world, and governments need to take a geopolitical view.  No one wants the lights to go off, after all.  As George Orwell said of his Wigan coalminers, their dark toil ensures a comfortable and well-lit life for the rest of us.  Well, most of us.  

So getting the economy right is important.  But it doesn’t necessarily follow that it should be the basis for planning an education system.  One of the justifications for the prioritisation of apprenticeship funding in England is that it gives the greatest wage gains.  Of course we expect government to get as much value from our taxes as possible, and tough decisions have to be made.  But is this the only criterion when there is so much evidence of the impact of learning on other aspects of economic life? 

In terms of having competence at level 4/5 as opposed to level 1, yes you are very much more likely to have higher wages (almost 5 times as much), but you are also more likely to be in good health, have high levels of trust, participate in volunteering, and even vote!  

What is so interesting about the Cable legacy consultation was its dual mandate of hard skills employment initiatives and soft skills community learning.  This is a mandate that should not just apply to adult further education, but the compulsory phase (to 18 in England), and universities.  In fact you hear the same cri-de-couer from schools and higher education institutions.  An education is more than the acquisition of a set of skills.

And yet adult education policies across European have a distinctly utilitarian air about them.  It would be unfair, and inappropriate, for me to single them out.  But there seems to be a consensus that the purpose of adult learning and skills is solely about economic progression when there is plenty of evidence that its impact is wider than that. 

NIACE’s upcoming conference ‘Realising Impact: making a difference through adult learning’ explores a broader range of concerns than the solely economic.  We will hear from practitioners across the UK and Europe about the wider impact of adult learning—and, incidentally, the savings it makes to the public purse.  We hope to explore with Tim Harford, the Undercover Economist, and other eminent speakers, a more complex view of our economy—one that reflects the real world as well as the preconceptions and ideologies of policy-makers.

It is worth remembering that the sign in Bill Clinton’s Little Rock 1992 campaign headquarters actually read:

Change vs. more of the same

The economy, stupid

Don’t forget health care

I’m sure we are in no danger of forgetting health care.  But what keeps people healthy and involved?  For Clinton’s team, economic development was part of a wider progressive agenda that addressed issues such as our engagement in the wider political life, the first Gulf War, and how people are looked after should they fall ill.  They are all part of the same set of issues.  

Adult education has a role to play in all these things, and to see it as having only a narrow economic focus is to misunderstand its nature and its full potential.  

Mark Ravenhall is a Senior Research Fellow at NIACE