Tag Archives: labour

Status quo: good for rockin’ all over the world, not so good for education

By Jo Burgess, Postgraduate Researchers, Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC), Work and Employment Relations, Management

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Who said life was fair? No-one.

Although politicians are keen in their efforts to acknowledge inequality, the problem is owned by society and society is a slippery and vague concept. As a society we should strive for equality: me, you and everyone we know, but we are largely onlookers to the reproduction of social advantage and disadvantage before us. In our society advantages and disadvantages are maintained by a variety of means: economic, cultural and social which ensures that social mobility is among the lowest in the developed world. The focal point of both the cause and solution to inequality is education. This has not gone unnoticed by politicians, it puts me in mind of one who thought education so good he called its name three times. Not much has changed, however, and we find ourselves in our technologically enabled, emotionally literate, post-this and that age, as twenty-first century people with an education system defined by its ability to perpetuate the limitations and freedoms of social class. In other words, those spoken by Justine Greening, ‘The reality is that in modern Britain where you start still too often decides where you finish’ (DfE: 2017). The view of education as an engine for social mobility has dominated discussion since the post-war period but has failed to result in meaningful reform, this is particularly evident in vocational education and training where the status quo is maintained in terms of gender and social class.

Our attitudes and values regarding education need a radical rethink. A starting point would be to examine the dominance of middle-class values which shape curriculum, assessment and teaching; perpetuating social advantage in ways that are both visible and obscure. As a result of continued focus on academic qualifications entry to University has grown and created new problems that of the over-qualified and under-utilised increasingly occupying jobs previously held by those less academically qualified. In a labour market with little or no increased capacity for higher level employment the redistribution of low skilled work to swathes of graduates will result in a reinforcement of social inequality, and a generation of debt burdened graduates in unsatisfying work. The higher education premium has become more stratified giving advantage to Russell Group graduates, and the intended meritocracy and ‘knowledge economy’ are as socially divisive and class conscious. If we are to achieve greater levels of social mobility and equality, we must start viewing academic and vocational learning as having equal value.

The Further Education sector in the UK occupies an unusual place in the education system, simultaneously peripheral and vital. Skills education policy over several decades can be characterised by the cycle of continual change, resultant instability and loss of identity and purpose. The ghettoisation of academic and vocational learning facilitates disadvantage by reinforcing class boundaries. Everyone thinks vocational education is a good idea, but as Alison Wolf (2002) observed ‘for other people’s children.’ Vocational education needs financial investment, of course, but also time, effort and intellectual investment. Learning skill and competency in the 21st Century should not be the same as the 1960s, we have different labour market requirements. Young people, and importantly their parents, need to consider not just their career but the indications of future employment.

Reform in education is long overdue, the government’s T-level qualifications due to be phased in from 2020 is less reform than recycling and presents significant challenges for the FE sector which has been hit hard by austerity. A radical change to our education system would involve long term strategies (much more than the cycle of one parliament) which address perception and value in a direct and pragmatic way. Less follow your dreams and more ‘where’s the job?’ in our career planning. Critically, barriers need to be removed so that social class does not define educational routes and I am thinking as much of the middle-class aversion to vocational education as the challenges presented to working class university entrants. Despite the consistent improvement of educational attainment for young women over decades, within vocational education and training gender stereotypes dominate occupational choice which has impact on future earnings, career trajectory and life chances but also maintains sectoral inequalities. Policy is unimaginative and maintains status quo.

My research explores the reasons for persistently high levels of gender segregation in vocational education and how the intersection of social class and gender impact upon the careers of young women. The purpose of this is to define barriers to change and consider improvements. In aiming to influence policies and practices which could contribute to gender balance in vocational education this may have incremental effects on the future gender make-up of the labour market. Young people deserve to have opportunities which enable security and purpose. Life isn’t fair, but education should be.

References:

Wolf, A. (2002) Does Education Matter? London: Penguin

Studying Finnish labour law: reflections from a research visit to Leeds

by Liisa Lähteenmäki, Postdoctoral Research Fellow (University of Turku)

Liisa Lahteenmaki presenting at CERIC Seminar

Liisa Lahteenmaki talks about labour law and political discourses in Finland.

I had great pleasure to be a visiting researcher at the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) in September-October 2018. I found CERIC to be an inspiring, multi-disciplinary research environment hosting a wide array of projects dealing with contemporary key employment issues, such as platform employment, employees’ health and welfare, and regulation of transnational labour markets. I also had the opportunity to give a CERIC research seminar about my current research project, which examines the changes made to the Finnish labour and employment legislation during the last 20 years.

Since 2003, Finland has witnessed a period of conservative or right-wing governments, the country being led by either the Centre party or the National Coalition. Historically, protective and empowering labour and employment legislation was forged by social democratic governments, and the period from the 1970s throughout the 1980s is carved into the collective memory of the nation as the years of stable progress in employment rights, labour protections and social welfare. This development was abruptly broken by the 1990s recession as the repercussions mainly meant degradation of welfare, wages, education, health services and stable employment.

Since the 1990s, neoliberal policies and market enhancing ideologies have swept Finland similarly to any other country, rendering the currency and ideals of labour protection and social welfare under attack. The triumphs of the welfare state were suddenly conceptualized as problems, even obstacles to economic growth. These turns have inevitably had effects on law-making.

Besides being interested in the trends and changes in labour and employment legislation per se, my research discusses the interplay between legislation, the reality of the labour markets, and other employment relevant phenomena in the Finnish society. I am particularly interested in the practice of law-making bases on the ideals of unbiased information and broad participation while the outcome, the actual law, is seen as a result of disinterested and rational decision making. Furthermore, I am interested in examining the interplay of legislation imposed and passed in ‘separate’ fields of society that are nevertheless always unavoidably interconnected: Legislation regulating migration, economy or human rights have percussions in the labour markets and vice versa, and this tends to be  ignored in discussions about changing employment and welfare.

Law itself upholds practices of sectoral decision making by, for example, restricting assessments of influence to sometimes generic issues (e.g. influences on the economy and administrative burdens), and by repeating the idea of law as an endogenous system, with its own internal rules and discourses. Laws regulating employment nevertheless always influence a multitude of other domains in everyday life: family and habitation, migration, and education, just to mention a few. Also, events taking place in ‘real life’ – that is, migration, families and lifestyle choices people make – do affect labour market outcomes. In this vein, my research examines what the possible repercussions of labour legislation are beyond the obvious, and how this ‘two-way traffic’ should be better taken into account when planning and justifying new labour legislation.

From the starting point of the idea of social protection as a critical concept, I will be evaluating the changes in the Contracts of Employment Act, the Health and Safety at Work Act, and the Unemployment Benefits Act. My research will ask whether we are still following the original paradigm and ideals of labour law (protecting the weaker party of the employment relationship) and Nordic welfare state (equality and leveling down of social and economic differences) when making changes to labour legislation. Borrowing from Lappi-Seppälä (2007) and Pratt (2008), I will use the idea of Scandinavian Exceptionalism in mapping the trends of labour legislation through some of the most critical years in the Finnish economy: From the unparalleled economic depression of the 1990s to the joining to the EU, the miracle of Nokia, the closures of the paper mills, and the rise of the gaming industry (e.g. Supercell and Rovio) in the 2000s. While Lappi-Seppälä and Pratt refer to the penal policies and the low levels of imprisonment in the Nordic countries, I will use the term in reference to the employment policies which have traditionally emphasized both the social democratic model of tripartite negotiations and the recognition of the unions, as well as the idea of social protection over maximum profits and insecure employment.

It truly was encouraging to be part of this community for a while. I would like to express my gratitude especially to CERIC Member Dr. Jo Ingold for taking an active part in organizing my visit. I hope that my visit in CERIC and Leeds University will lead to inspiring cooperation as my aim is to broaden my research to include international comparisons. It would indeed be an honour to work together again with CERIC colleagues.