Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 74

Submission from the Women's Budget Group


Submitted by:

    The Women's Budget Group, and

Baroness Margaret Prosser, Chair of the Women and Work Commission

Baroness Joyce Gould, Interim Chair, Women's National Commission

Baroness Haleh Afshar, Professor of Politics and Women's Studies, York University, Chair of the Muslim Women's Network

Professor Liz Kelly, Director of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit London Metropolitan University, Chair of the End Violence Against Women Campaign

Fay Mansell, Chair, National Federation of Women's Institutes

Dr Katherine Rake, Director, Fawcett Society

Fran Bennett, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of Oxford; UK independent expert on social inclusion for the European Commission

Professor Claire Callender, Professor of Higher Education Studies, Birkbeck, University of London

Professor Diane Elson, Professor of Sociology, University of Essex

Professor Damian Grimshaw, Professor of Employment Studies and Director of EWERC (European Work and Employment Research Centre), Manchester Business School

Professor Susan Himmelweit, Professor of Economics, Open University

Professor Heather Joshi, Institute of Education, University of London

Professor Hilary Land, Emeritus Professor of Family Policy, University of Bristol

Professor Ruth Lister, Professor of Social Policy, University of Loughborough

Professor Marjorie Mayo, Director of the Centre for Lifelong Learning and Community Engagement, Goldsmiths, University of London

Professor Jane Millar, Director, Centre for the Analysis of Social Policy, University of Bath

Professor Diane Perrons, Director, Gender Institute, London School of Economics

Professor Shirin Rai, University of Warwick, Professor of Politics and International Relations

Professor Jackie Scott, University of Cambridge, Director of the ESRC Research Centre on Gender Inequalities

Professor Holly Sutherland, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex

Professor Sylvia Walby, Professor of Sociology, Lancaster University

  The Women's Budget Group (WBG) is a think tank dedicated to the promotion of gender equality through appropriate economic and social policy. Our primary function is to advise government and others about the gender implications of policy, particularly about the impact on gender equality of different proposals for the use of resources. We assess not only policies targeted specifically at women and girls but also those that are apparently "gender neutral", raising awareness that because of women's and men's different social and economic positioning many such policies will have a differential gender impact. Such analysis of the differing gender impacts of policies has become particularly important since the introduction of the duty on public sector bodies to promote gender equality (the "gender equality duty").

  The Women's Budget Group and its members have worked with and been consulted by various departments of government including HM Treasury, the Department for Work and Pensions, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Department for Communities and Local Government.

  Supporting signatories are members of the WBG or otherwise have expertise in the field of women's equality, education, employment, social care and child poverty.

  The WBG would be willing to give oral evidence to the Committee.


  1.  The proposed withdrawal of funding for ELQ students is likely to have deleterious consequences on women (and men) seeking to retrain after a period spent out of the labour market or in part-time employment because of caring responsibilities. Such interruptions or reductions in employment can result in severe and long-term labour market disadvantage. This is an important cause of the gender pay gap which the government is committed to reducing. It is the main reason why many women work below their potential with consequent loss of productivity to the economy.

  2.  Taking further qualifications is one route out of this trap. People contemplating retraining to enter into employment or move out of low grade part-time employment are at a stage in their lives when they are unlikely to be in a position to pay higher fees. Reducing subsidies will therefore reduce the numbers doing such training.

  3.  These students are also most likely to study part-time, as are those in similar circumstances but without previous qualifications. Reducing the numbers of ELQ students will impact on the availability of part-time education for all students, including those without previous qualifications. These are the less privileged students, those from backgrounds that have not traditionally considered higher education, about whose access and opportunities the government is rightly concerned. Over three fifths of part-time students are women.

  4.  If access to retraining for women returners and carers is restricted or becomes unaffordable there are also likely to be deleterious effects on:

    —  Adults needing care.

    —  Children and especially those living in poverty.

    —  Good employers willing to provide high quality part-time employment for returners.

  5.  We recommend that:

    —  An equalities impact assessment of this policy be carried out before it is implemented.

    —  The results of such an assessment be assessed as part of the 2009 review of higher education funding when the funding of part-time education as a whole will be considered.

    —  If the policy is implemented, exemptions be given for the education of those whose employment opportunities have been reduced through taking on caring responsibilities.


  6.  In December 2006 Lord Leitch published the conclusions of his review of skills in the UK economy. Lord Leitch had been tasked by the Chancellor with examining the optimal skills mix to maximise economic growth, productivity and social justice. The Leitch Review concluded that the UK should aim to be "world class" in skills by 2020 benchmarked against the top quartile of OECD countries. This implies a massive step-change in skill acquisition across all levels within the economy, more than doubling at most levels. It also places huge emphasis on qualifications as the way of measuring progress towards the ambition of world class skills. There are of course huge costs to meeting the ambition for world class skills, but these are easily outweighed by the benefits.

  7.  In order to deliver this ambition government policy will have to reach out to groups of individuals and employers who have not traditionally been involved in life-long learning. The decision to focus resources on first time learners and employer supported training by removing funding for students studying for an "Equivalent and Lower Qualification" (ELQ) appears to be consistent with these priorities of the Leitch agenda.

  8.  However, it must be remembered that the overarching goal is to maximise economic growth, productivity and social justice. The Leitch Review has been justifiably criticized for lacking systematic analysis of the impact of its recommendations by gender. In particular its focus on training in the workplace and on those without previous qualifications ignores the particular needs of women re-entering the labour market after a period of caring where re-skilling will be just as important to deliver productivity and social justice. These needs and their connection to raising women's productivity have been clearly documented in research commissioned by the Department of Trade and Industry.[128]

  9.  Further, the Government accepted the conclusions of the Women and Work Commission that reskilling is crucial to addressing the gender pay gap. In response to their report, Shaping a Fairer Future,[129] the Chancellor announced in Budget 2006 a £40 million pilot on re-skilling women to be delivered in London and in partnership with Sector Skills Councils.

  10.  Following the Comprehensive Spending Review the Government announced a new Public Service Agreement for Equalities (PSA15), that it would "Address the disadvantage that individuals experience because of their gender, race, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief (The Equalities PSA[130])" and adopted a measure of the gender pay gap "Reducing the pay gap between men and women which currently stands at 12.6%, and doing more work on understanding pay gaps for those who are disabled or from BME backgrounds" as one of the key indicators against which it will be held to account. This is the first time that a PSA has committed to reducing the gender pay gap.

  11.  Education later in life, often more focused than at earlier stages on particular employment related qualifications, has been of great significance in updating the skills not only of those in employment but also of those currently out of the labour force, for whom new qualifications can open up a route to productive employment and unleash individual potential. Such a route back into worthwhile employment has been of particular benefit to women and others who have taken time out of employment, or reduced their hours of work, in order to care for others. In a changing world of work, skills can rapidly deteriorate while out of employment or in jobs where they are unused. Many people with caring responsibilities, even if they remain in employment, seeking hours which are compatible with those responsibilities, take jobs where their existing skills are underused. The part-time pay penalty is notoriously high, partly for that reason.[131]

  12.  The longer-run employment and career penalties of periods out of employment are heavy. Periods of part-time work can be equally if not more damaging to long term prospects. Women who have spent just one year in part-time work, and then worked full-time, can still expect to earn up to 10% less after 15 years than those who have worked full-time for all 15 years.[132] Many women never return to full-time employment after a period in part-time work and many more remain trapped in jobs working below their potential as a result of periods spent out of full-time employment.[133] There is, of course, a long-term cost to the Exchequer, and hence to the tax payer, of the lack of access to more productive and higher paid work consequent on the loss of access to education. This is in both a loss of tax revenues and the higher cost of Pension Guarantees for women in later life who have been less able to build a decent pension.

  13.  Taking further qualifications is one route out of this trap. Using the NCDS survey, Jenkins found that among women not in employment in 1991, the percentage making a transition into employment by 2000 was more than double for those who had obtained a new qualification in this period.[134] This applies for all levels of previous qualifications, including the highest level. Interestingly only one third of those new qualifications were of a higher level than previous qualifications, so two thirds of these were students studying for an `Equivalent and Lower Qualification' although not all at HE levels.

  14.  While some may retrain by going into full-time education, for most the same caring responsibilities that have restricted their availability for full-time employment mean that they choose to study part-time. The availability and affordability of part-time education at all levels has therefore been of crucial importance to women returners and those currently employed in jobs which do not use their potential.

  15.  Such people are unlikely to be in a position to pay higher fees, since this is a time at which family budgets are often at their most stretched. Institutions that specialise in part-time education are not restricted in the fees that they can charge, suggesting that their students are already paying what the market can bear. An inevitable result of raising fees for ELQ students would be to reduce the affordability and hence the demand for higher education from women returners and others not using their skills in low paid employment.

  16.  Reduced access to second chance education will therefore impact particularly heavily on women and others who take time out of employment, or reduce their hours of employment to care for others. In effect those with existing qualifications will be denied the choice that many now take of using higher education as a way of restarting a career after a period spent caring for others. Since degree-level technical and vocational education is increasingly required for employment, this will be a severe blow to their life chances.

  17.  This in turn will have knock-on effects on others:

    —  On adults needing care, because carers, aware that this path to return to worthwhile employment later will be closed to them in the future, may feel less able and willing to devote themselves to caring for others in the present. Given the increasing need for social care, most of which is provided unpaid, this should be of particular concern to the government at the moment. It seems perverse to worsen the potential career opportunities of carers.

    —  On children and especially those living in poverty. Enabling mothers as well as fathers to have reliable careers is the best route out of poverty for children. While fathers' incomes are important, for the many children whose parents split up it is their mothers' ability to have reasonably paid employment that is crucial to avoiding the myriad developmental disadvantages of living in poverty.

    —  On good employers willing to provide high quality part-time employment for returners. Such employment will become riskier for employers. If pre-employment education becomes unaffordable, employers will have a restricted pool of skills on which to draw and will no longer be able to rely on the signal of commitment and abitly that those with previous qualifications but currently out of the labour market could give, through undertaking such education.

  18.  Further, cutting subsidies for ELQ students will have knock on effects on those without previous qualifications trying to use higher education as a way to re-enter employment, by reducing provision and driving up unit costs. This will be particularly true for part-time employment-related courses in higher education, for which ELQ students form a sizeable proportion of the market. The proposed policy therefore risks reducing the availability of high quality accessible part time higher education for first-time degree students while increasing its costs. Such an unintended consequence could undermine the whole purpose of the policy. For a saving of just £100 million, less than 1.4% of the total higher education budget, this is a big risk to take.

  19.  Any such effects on the provision and cost of part-time education will be felt most acutely by those for whom such education is their first, and often only, choice, and for whom it is particularly crucial in giving access to worthwhile employment. These are the less privileged students, such as those from disadvantaged, minority or migrant communities and from backgrounds that have not traditionally considered higher education, about whose access and opportunities the government is rightly concerned. Among these, women returners and carers figure highly. Over three-fifths of all part-time students are women.[135]


  20.  Before implementing any change in the funding of institutions for ELQ students the government should conduct and publish an equalities impact assessment, which takes account of the direct and indirect impacts of the proposed change on both ELQ and first-time students, paying particular attention to the interaction with the new gender pay gap target.

  21.  The results of such an impact assessment should be used to inform the higher education funding review due in 2009, when the funding of part-time education is to be considered. It is only in this context that the effect on part-time higher education as whole can be assessed and any deleterious effects on widening participation in the sector be compensated for.

  22.  If a change in funding of institutions for ELQ students goes ahead, exemptions should be given for the education of those whose employment opportunities have been reduced through taking on caring responsibilities. It is important that such exemptions include those who have taken low grade part-time employment as well as those who have been completely out of the labour force.

January 2008

128   Walby, S and Olsen, W K, 2002. The Impact of Women's Position in the Labour Market on Current UK Productivity and Implications for Future Productivity Growth, Report for the Department of Trade and Industry, Women and Equality Unit. London: HMSO. Back

129 Back

130 Back

131   Manning, A and Petrongolo, B (2005) The Part-time Pay Penalty, London School of Economics and Women and Equality Unit, CEP Discussion Paper No 679. Back

132   Francesconi, M and Gosling, A (2005) Career paths of part time workers, Manchester: EOC Working Paper Series No 19. Back

133   Manning, A and Petrongolo, B (op cit). Back

134   Jenkins, A, "Women, Lifelong Learning and Transitions into Employment", Work, Employment and Society, 20/2, 309-328, 2006. Back

135   Ramsden B and Brown N (2006) Part-time students and part-time study in higher education in the UK: A quantitative data analysis of 2003-04 HESA data, Universities UK/Guild HE, London. Back

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