The last couple of months has felt like that moment when Indiana Jones spots the ball rolling down the corridor towards him. We’ve all know that the comprehensive spending review has been coming and we’ve all been running away as fast as we could. But unlike Indy, we weren’t sure what way to run.
So now it is here. Osborne has spoken and we now know the truth – sort of. We still need to wait and see how it pans out and so it will be a while before we know whether we’ve managed to escape with our hats intact. However, on the whole it was probably pretty much what everyone expected.
It is worth putting down, just for the record, that I don’t necessarily buy the rationale for the cutpocalpse. The idea that the deficit needs to be paid back tomorrow is highly contestable as is the idea that this comprehensive spending review will address it. It is equally possible that the cuts will have a damaging impact on the economy as a whole, pushing us back into recession and therefore making the repaying of the deficit less likely. It is also worth noting that there are a number of measures in here that don’t really address the immediate deficit issues and are actually more about a longer term agenda about readjusting the shape of the welfare state. Both changes to pensions and to HE (someone still has to pay up front) are likely to make relatively little difference in the short term but a much bigger one in the long term.
Another issue is that it is much easier to make announcements about cuts than it is to actually make them. Particularly if these cuts are based on things like reducing numbers on benefit or reducing benefit fraud. Undoubtedly there will be vulnerable people who will lose the money that enables them to maintain some kind of reasonable lifestyle. However there will probably be more who will work out new ways to claim under different benefits. It is difficult to wipe away issues of social exclusion and worklessness with the stroke of a pen.
So what does it all mean for those in the careers and education sectors? We are seeing cuts to FE, to the Education Maintenance Allowance and a transfer of HE funding from the state to the individual. On the other hand we are also seeing more money for adult apprenticeships and by some accounts more for schools. We are also seeing a relatively light raid on the science budget. For those who are employed by local government things look bad and this is likely to make the already very precarious position of Connexions even more difficult. However there was some support for the All Age Careers service.
All in all education hasn’t been hit as hard as it could have been. This isn’t to say that things are going to get pretty difficult, but rather that there are other bits of the public sector that are going to hurt more. There will be redundancies, restructuring and a decline in quality, but there will also be continuity. The education system as a whole will broadly endure. How things pan out in higher education will be particularly interesting/terrifying. Essentially we’ve seen the government make a very bold move in shifting the cost of higher education to individuals. Apart from my political perspective on this (I don’t agree with it) this also seems to be a pretty risky move as there are lots of possible implications (Will people pay? How much will they pay? Will they pay for the same kinds of degrees? Will universities be able to respond to changes in demand? etc etc). However even these radical changes aren’t likely to sink higher education as some were predicting.
The Guardian led with “Axe falls on the poor” and the paper is probably right. Despite attempts to convince everyone that the broadest shoulders bear the largest burden the bulk of cuts are going to hit those at the bottom of the labour market. While we should be wary about seeing this as a done deal and accepting the figures given at face value we also can’t pretend that nothing has changed. The public sector is still there, the apocalypse hasn’t happened, but the world does look a bit greyer, a bit more unfair and those of us in the public sector are probably in for a pretty bumpy few years.