Three things we hope the chancellor says in the Autumn Statement (and two we hope he doesn't)

Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of the University Alliance, has hopes and fears ahead of Philip Hammond's speech

November 22, 2016

On Wednesday 23 November, the UK chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, will deliver his Autumn Statement. It is the government's annual update on what it has planned for the economy, and it will have implications for all departments, including those that oversee higher education.

Three things that I am hoping to hear from the chancellor...

Invest in innovation as well as infrastructure

Mr Hammond’s intention to set aside his predecessor’s spending rules and allow additional investment has been widely trailed. But we need the right balance of investment.

There should be new stimulus for business creation and development in Britain’s cities and regions, alongside new road and rail schemes to link them together more effectively. There should be support for local and regional systems – such as university enterprise zones, Catapult Centres and innovation centres –  that bring the benefits of research into the real world, to complement support for big capital projects in science and technology.

The vision should be of vibrant, innovative, knowledge-economy cities linked by excellent transport infrastructure. 

Increase core funding for skills

For a country that is so dependent on the skills of our people to create growth, we seriously underinvest. We are about to see widespread devolution of skills budgets to combined authorities, and the implementation of a new post-16 skills system. Let’s make this an opportunity to really grip the skills challenge – which must include increasing funding for skills.

Other policies will also help. The apprenticeship levy will soon kick in – and more and better apprenticeship capacity is a good start – but apprenticeships are not the only kind of training that is required. We need to think again about the many and varied reasons that prevent people already in work from upskilling and reskilling and come up with creative ways to address this. 

For example, improving information, advice and guidance; creating more flexible funding arrangements (reintroducing lifelong learning accounts, using apprenticeship levy for other forms of work-based learning); and incentivising collaboration and co-investment by employers and individuals ("kitemarks" for good employers, government match or top-up for some kinds of investment). 

Set up an Industrial Strategy Commission

We expect the chancellor to announce something relating to the new Industrial Strategy, but it could well only be a consultation. This should come alongside the creation of a new commission, chaired by Greg Clark, to develop the strategy with all the central economic players.

Trying simply to import a more corporatist, European style of capitalism into Britain would be a fool’s errand, both technically and politically – but it might be possible to bring businesses from the major sectors, trade unions, local authorities, public services, and, of course, universities around the same table to look at the challenges. 

... two things that I hope the chancellor avoids...

Pulling rabbits out of hats

The previous chancellor, George Osborne, occasionally showed a penchant for budget-day theatrics at the expense of duller but more important issues such as building our core strength in innovation and skills. We hope that Mr Hammond will leave the rabbits in the fields. 

Further cuts to departmental budgets

There isn’t a lot of meat left on these bones. Core spending departments have been squeezed hard for half a decade (and in real terms, that includes education and health). Tax cuts pledged by the Conservatives at the general election, before the deterioration of the public finances, should be a preferred candidate for finding room in the budget over more cuts to investment.

John Maynard Keynes famously said that “when the facts change, I change my mind”. We need a bit of Keynesian pragmatism this week.

...and one thing I hope the chancellor sets up for the future. 

A British Structural Fund

We still don’t know what Brexit really means, but we can be pretty certain that European structural funding won’t be reaching these shores in the next decade.

We will need a Great British equivalent, to support regional growth and spread the benefits of global trade. This must be a vehicle for continued investment across the whole country. It could feature something like the Global Challenges Research Fund but for "National Challenges", to support the ideas that will create future growth. 

Maddalaine Ansell is chief executive of University Alliance.

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