Following the publication of the UK government’s Skills for jobs white paper, Greg Wade, UUK’s policy lead on innovation, growth, employability and skills, studies its proposals and makes the case for a ‘whole skills approach’.
In among last week’s flurry of policy announcements from the Department for Education there was the very important – and welcome – Skills for jobs white paper. These announcements form part of a major skills reform programme, representing a huge opportunity for the skills sector to work with employers to meet demand and drive opportunity and growth. It may seem challenging, in the current lockdown and with indications of a double dip recession, to think about the future economic recovery, but it essential that we put in place the skills buildings blocks needed to support future growth.
The past year has placed considerable pressure on the skills of people in the existing workforce as well as on the future skills needs of the economy. Meanwhile, there is a pressing need to reduce unemployment. So, how much does the skills white paper ensure that the skills sector can respond to these challenges? The white paper provides many proposals which build upon the prime minister’s keynote skills speech last September, including:
1. Boosting funding for further education
It is clear that the further education sector needs additional investment, so this is very welcome. The college sector, together with universities, will have a key role in addressing technical skills gaps and increasing success and progression at all levels. We need every part of the skills system supported to supercharge future economic growth and success, and the whole skills sector must come together to support flexible opportunity and progression right up to higher level qualifications.
2. Strengthening links with employers
We should applaud any proposals that seek to enhance the collaboration between skills providers and employers. Employer engagement in learning and employer-led qualifications are now a successful model for the delivery of apprenticeships – including degree apprenticeships – and it is positive that this model will help drive the development of technical education at Levels 4 and 5. Yet with change occurring so rapidly, we need effective ways of ensuring employers can work with skills providers to meet their needs as quickly and flexibly as possible.
3. Meeting local skills needs
Many smaller companies are locally based, and support from the skills sector needs to be tailored to the local economy. A local focus is also a key route to increasing opportunities for both young people and retraining adults. However, it is important that local skills initiatives are well informed by national and sectoral intelligence and advice – an important role for the Skills and Productivity Board.
4. Increasing choice and flexibility
The proposed Lifelong Learning Entitlement has great potential to increase choice for learners, including young people entering post-18 education for the first time and those who might need to retrain and reskill. The commitment to increased flexibility and choice is welcome, especially the exploration of credit and modular provision. While there is still considerable detail to be worked out, removing what the prime minister called the ‘pointless and non-sensical gulf’ between ‘so-called academic’ and ‘so-called practical’ when everything is a skill is a priority. We need providers to work with employers and officials to ensure that learners are empowered to combine different pieces of their lifelong learning jigsaw to support their careers and meet employers’ skills needs.
Where do universities fit in?
Universities are already delivering about a third of Level 4 and 5 technical provision alongside higher-level and degree apprenticeships, and they have lots of experience delivering courses with strong employer engagement. The delivery of nursing, health, engineering and many others have a strong professional focus. We estimate over 40% of undergraduate students are on courses like this. Moreover, there are already wide-ranging and extensive links between universities and further education colleges that have a strong focus on enhancing opportunities and meeting employers’ skills needs – often at the local level.
Before COVID-19, the evidence of the importance of professional, higher level skilled occupations driving jobs growth was overwhelming. Research from the Resolution Foundation found that 90% of net increase in jobs growth between 2008-18 were in professional and technical roles. The robust demand for degree apprenticeships during the current downturn also indicates the importance of higher-level skills. To meet the expected future demand for higher level skills we need a whole skills approach, combining academic and technical, universities and colleges, or we simply won’t be able to meet demand.
There are some welcome and positive foundations in the white paper for building a skills system that drives economic growth and increases opportunities. To really supercharge economic growth and deliver the prime minister’s vision of a skills system that benefits learners, employers and the nations of the UK as a whole, we need:
- A whole skills approach that brings together colleges, universities and other providers to enhance engagement with employers, clarify how local and national skills needs can be met, and respond quickly and effectively.
- A Lifelong Learning Entitlement that puts genuine and maximum choice in the hands of learners, suitably informed by information, advice and guidance.
- Clear pathways, progression and combinations for learners that are flexible and enable learners to develop in ways that suit their needs and circumstances.
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