My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Forsyth and the Economic Affairs Committee for this valuable report, which should be a massive wake-up call to all those who care about our future workforce. As a member of the Select Committee investigating intergenerational fairness and provision, I have to say that the evidence my noble friend gave to that committee on the back of this report was among the most powerful and compelling that we heard, and the recommendations of our report will have been influenced by it. The report focuses on strengthening alternatives to higher education and making student finance more effective. As the report says:
“A monoculture has developed around the primacy of the undergraduate degree which has crowded out other options which are perceived as inferior. This situation is not helped by the paucity of information available to young people; the incentivisation of schools to send pupils down the academic route; and employers requiring degrees for jobs which do not really need them”.
Today I should like to bring to your Lordships’ attention a topic that is not referred to in the report, but is important to its objective of addressing skills shortages: youth full-time social action, or FTSA, as it is known. FTSA is undertaken by full-time volunteers aged 18 to 25 who devote up to 35 hours a week for six to 12 months to improve the lives of vulnerable people. Over recent years I have met a number of the organisations involved in this work. City Year UK volunteers, for example, tackle educational inequality in schools in poorer communities through one-to-one tuition and in-classroom support, ensuring that no pupil falls behind due to their socioeconomic background. Full-time volunteers with Depaul UK support homeless people, while those with Volunteering Matters support the health and social care sector. No one is suggesting that full-time social action be considered an alternative to higher education. Indeed, FTSA should be seen as an option that develops key skills in young people regardless of the route they take post-school, boosting their work-readiness and employability.
Despite hours of voluntary service to their communities, young full-time volunteers in the UK are classed as NEETs—not in education, employment or training—and receive no support from the Government. Contrast this with those in the USA, France and Germany who participate in government-backed national programmes, such as AmeriCorps in the United States and Service Civique in France, which offer a range of areas to be involved in, including education, environmental action and disaster relief. In return, they receive rewards such as reduced tuition fees and debt forgiveness. It is clear why there are only around 1,000 full-time volunteers in the UK compared with tens of thousands involved in FTSA programmes abroad. With greater support for the young people participating in FTSA in the UK and the establishment of an equivalent national programme, we would make good progress against the report’s ambition of addressing skills shortages. The report highlights how many young people coming from both university and technical routes lack key workplace skills such as teamworking, communication and time management.
FTSA places young people in positions of responsibility where they can rapidly develop such skills. For this reason, 93% of City Year UK volunteers are employed or in education within three months of completing the programme, and 95% of alumni said they had developed skills that will help them secure future employment, particularly leadership and communication. Some 80% of Service Civique participants reported that they had acquired professional skills useful to their futures, and as a result of skills built during their programme, AmeriCorps alumni have been found to have a substantially higher likelihood of finding a job than those who did not participate.
While the Economic Affairs Committee—and the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, in particular—highlighted the increasing amount of money lost in the student finance system through loans that will never be paid back, FTSA schemes such as those I have mentioned today result in a return on public investment. Analysis by Pro Bono Economics demonstrates that the net benefit to the UK economy of 10,000 full-time volunteers would be up to £119 million per year, showing that the Government stand to benefit from investing in a programme of youth full-time social action.
Despite FTSA’s positive effects on young people’s skills development, and the Government’s independent review of FTSA recommending the establishment of a government-backed pilot scheme, we are yet to see decisive action. FTSA builds the work- readiness of young people and should feature in any discussion of careers guidance and skills development. This will not happen, however, if we continue to overlook the evidence. What plans do the Government have to raise awareness among young people of FTSA opportunities so that they can have the opportunity to supplement their post-school qualifications with the development of crucial workplace skills?