There ought to be no difference in aspiration, Boris Johnson insisted, between the academic realm and the world of practical skills. So could he tell us, a journalist wanted to know, what the new Covid rules actually mean in practice for people in the North East? For example, are six people allowed to get a pint together at an outdoor pub picnic table?
Well, golly, if you’re two households outdoors, or one household indoors or, or… the important thing was to check with your local authority, the Prime Minister garbled. A few questions later, he thanked Exeter College for giving him a tutorial on brick-laying and was gone.
As an argument for practical education over the intellectual training that he (and most journalists) had, the PM’s performance made a compelling case. His failure to get a handle on his own Covid rules quickly overshadowed the new policies he was unveiling. This is a shame, because they are good policies.
The gist is that he wants to expand access to tertiary education beyond the university sector, giving all adults access to four years’ worth of training, whether it’s a degree, a vocational qualification equivalent to an A-level or an advanced technical qualification. This should subject the failing parts of our university sector to a healthy dose of competition, paring down demand for useless degrees and realising the potential of non-graduates.
Yet whatever the positive long-term effects of his policies, Mr Johnson looks like a man dangerously detached from the country he governs. Pub workers in Leeds are not thinking about their bright futures as windfarm technicians, or whatever it is the PM wants them to do. They are wondering how to get through the next six months without falling behind on their rent.
It isn’t just first-time Tory voters in the north who are facing ruin either. Traditional, middle-class Conservative supporters, whether they are wedding planners or managing city-centre retail chains, are facing a huge crash in living standards. Even if they are eligible for the schemes announced yesterday – which they probably aren’t since many will already have degrees – going back to college to retrain as a computer programmer is probably not high on their list of priorities.
None of this means that these new education policies are the wrong thing to do. Just like Rishi Sunak’s economic rescue plan, they tend in the right direction. But compared to the scale of the catastrophe facing Britain’s businesses and their staff, they look irrelevant. For one thing, none of the schemes unveiled yesterday will actually start until April.
The problem is that decimating whole segments of the economy, as the next few months’ lockdowns are set to do, does not create opportunities so much as destroy wealth that could be the basis for new growth. In practical terms, it is easier to retrain part-time as a construction engineer if you can pay the bills with part-time work as a shop assistant. If that job disappears, the most urgent task is to find a new one, rather than to think about moving city (tricky in lockdown) and changing career.
Rather than make piecemeal announcements, the Government needs to package up all of its policies as a coherent response to the Covid recession.
So far, we can expect an inadequate winter support scheme for jobs that will land millions on the dole, a benefits system insufficient to avoid severe economic damage and an offer to finance training that won’t actually start until after the worst pain.
If all of these ingredients were put together more effectively, we could be looking at a jobs plan that would keep viable businesses going (unlike Mr Sunak’s), a temporary rise in benefits for those workers whose jobs don’t survive so as to alleviate the Covid collapse in living standards, and a hugely ambitious drive to expand training capacity and enrol people on a mass scale to accelerate the recovery.
Such a programme might convince voters that, despite the next six months of gloom and its problems with test and trace, the Government does at least have a plan to get us out of the Covid crash and rediscover some hope for the future. Instead, the country just sees a Prime Minister floundering around to distract from his worrying lack of grip over the pandemic. Never mind training up Britain’s workers. Mr Johnson should start with his own Government.