From education to employment

There are many possible roads to levelling up – It’s time we start building them

Prof Keith Ridgway, Executive Chair of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (operated by the University of Strathclyde), co-founder of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in Sheffield, and a Commissioner on the Lifelong Education Commission.

In their stiller, quieter moments the individual who conjured up the levelling up phrase must wonder what on earth they have done. Instead of an inspiring opportunity, it has become a major challenge for the authors of the long delayed government white paper that now bears its name.  

It is a challenge for many reasons, not least that no one seems to know what it means – and in the words of Lewis Carroll: “If you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there”.

In an attempt to define where we are going, academics have resorted to the old adage “if you can’t measure it, you can’t achieve it”; and perhaps the easiest thing to measure is GDP.

Articles have highlighted the growing disparities between the worst and better off communities, focusing on the North-South divide and regenerating the infamous ‘Red wall towns’.

But will a road that travels only North to South bridge the poverty and inequality gaps that blight our cities and towns across the country? Many of the North’s former industrial centres still suffer from an East-West divide. 

This originated from a time when wealthy factory and mill owners, and managers, lived to the west of the city – whilst the prevailing winds blew smoke and pollution away from their homes and towards the east. 

Inequality in the UK is not a simple matter of how far north you travel.

Some of our most divided and unequal cities and towns are in the South of England. A 2018 report by the Centre for Cities pointed out that the list of the top 10 least equal cities in the UK was dominated by the Greater South-East, (Cardiff and York being the exceptions) with Cambridge the least equal, followed by Oxford and London.

Clearly, levelling up is a national not a regional problem – and a national road map is required that opens up routes to opportunity wherever they are needed.

According to management theory, Pareto analysis tells us that 80% of the problem can be traced to 20% of the causes; or put another way, a limited number of factors, either desirable or undesirable, have the greatest impact on outcomes. 

So, perhaps the real challenge of levelling up is to identify the limited number of factors that can be improved to provide people with that feeling of personal well-being and contentment that comes from equal opportunity.

High on the list would be access to good schools and hospitals, rewarding and stable jobs and the knowledge that there is always the opportunity to improve “your lot”.

Bridging the divide between university research and industrial commercialisation

Much of the recent debate on levelling up has, however, been dominated by university academics who argue it can best be achieved by funding more research and innovation. But it is hard to see how an extra £5.2 billion on fundamental research is going to open the doors of opportunity for young and older learners in places like Partington in Manchester, where I grew up. 

Others, like the influential Onward think tank, suggest a different path. Their approach focuses on the translational research needed to bridge the divide between university research and industrial commercialisation. This is one of the main roles of the Catapults and, although valuable, UK investment in this applied R&D infrastructure is small compared to our European competitors such as Germany.

Much less talked about, but in many ways a better and more direct way to level up is to focus on creating rewarding, stable jobs whilst instilling the sense that there will always be more opportunities in the future. 

The role of Further Education in levelling up

This is where Further Education comes in. While the government has lavished £20 billion on university research and development, the FE sector has experienced a prolonged period of reduced funding. It has been levelling down, not up.

A report last year by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) concluded that 16-19 education funding has experienced the biggest drop of any education sector. 

Funding per student in further education and sixth-form colleges also fell by 12% in real terms between 2010–11 and 2019–20, whilst funding per student in school sixth forms fell by 23%. Clearly, we are heading in the wrong direction.

Skills training gives “a better bang for your buck”

Last December, the University of Strathclyde`s Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) held its first Forging and Forming Forum for companies in South Yorkshire. The aim was to identify common problems. As predicted, these included soaring energy costs, reaching net zero, productivity, and introducing digital technologies. 

Surprisingly however, one of the major problems companies were facing was the recruitment of new staff with relevant skills. 

And this skills shortage isn’t restricted to South Yorkshire and the forging industry, it is a problem across all sectors of manufacturing. The 2022 Make UK/PwC Senior Executive survey identified up-skilling and retraining existing staff as the biggest priority for around two thirds of companies. 

If good quality positions are remaining unfilled because people with the required skills are not available, clearly something needs to be done. We need to provide more roads of opportunity for people to obtain the skills they need to meet the demands of industry and land rewarding, high-skilled jobs.

A benefit here is that, compared to research exploitation, skills training gives speedy returns on an investment; or as my American colleagues would say: “a better bang for your buck”. 

Apprenticeships take three to four years, but the impact is long-term.  After a basic program, it is possible to continue training to obtain technician and graduate qualification. In many cases the employing company will even support this educational journey, recognising the benefits of employing more highly trained staff and generating long term loyalty to the company. 

Widespread availability of modular and flexible courses are a critical innovation

And it is not only at apprentice level where training can produce quick returns on investment. Recently, the Lifelong Education Commission produced a report examining the possibilities of enabling learners to train and then retrain throughout their lives. 

It underlined the utility of workers being able to enhance their skills by dipping in and out of training throughout their careers. To facilitate this, it was suggested that the widespread availability of modular and flexible courses – delivered in a variety of modes and formats – could be a critical innovation. 

I also firmly believe that developing Manufacturing Skills Academies within the FE system, closely linked to universities, would raise the profile of manufacturing skills whilst highlighting opportunities in the manufacturing industry. This would be enhanced by creating a closer link between HE and FE, encouraging flexible access and highlighting the potential for life-long learning.

National Transition Training Fund

A good example of this is the Scottish Government’s National Transition Training Fund, which was established to support people who had lost their jobs or were at risk of redundancy during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This £25 million fund is intended to help up to 10,000 people aged 25 and over to develop the skills required to move into sectors with great potential for future growth, such as digital technologies and sustainable green jobs. This training is provided at all levels and in a wide variety of forms.

Part of this training is delivered by the Manufacturing Skills Academy, a member of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland which works closely with FE providers. It has helped institutions like the University of Strathclyde to complement its FE offering, providing flexibility training in areas such as digital skills. 

What will be the final destination of levelling up?

Not defining the final destination of levelling up has generally been seen as a weakness of the policy. However, the debate it has provoked has caused many of us in the education space to reflect on the many possible ‘roads to levelling up’ we could take. 

Parity of esteem and funding for skills, further education and lifelong learning – these are roads in urgent need of repair. So, Lewis Carroll was almost right: it is not any road that will take you there, but many roads. It’s time we started building them.

Prof Keith Ridgway, Executive Chair of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (operated by the University of Strathclyde), co-founder of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in Sheffield, and a Commissioner on the Lifelong Education Commission.

Lifelong Education Commission – Skills and Levelling Up Manifesto

The Government has released its Levelling Up the United Kingdom White Paper, setting out a series of policy aims to empower and regenerate the ‘left behind’ areas of the UK.

The proposed introduction of Education Investment Areas, the UK National Academy, new Institutes of
Technology, and the Unit for Future Skills, among other provisions, are a signal that the Government has placed new directions in skills and education policy at the centre of its levelling up plans.

But it could go still further in pursuing radical innovation in place-based, lifelong academic and vocational learning provision that makes retraining and upskilling accessible to the worst-off people and areas across the UK.

The Lifelong Education Commission has published it’s “Skills and Levelling Up Manifesto“, outlining ten key policies that would enable local areas to take significant forward strides in crafting skills and education policies that can meet their current and future needs:

Six of these policies are powers that should be devolved to mayoral combined authorities and counties with ‘county deals’ as part of all future devolution arrangements. These should be set out within the framework of five-year funding settlements between Government and the competent local authorities that specifically cover the funds dedicated to skills and education.

The remaining four policies are simple but meaningful policy changes at the national level that would go furthest in helping make these devolved powers as effective as possible. At their heart is the principle that local authorities need the flexibility to set, pool, and ringfence budgets for local learning development projects, as well as the discretion to direct local knowledge and skills innovation. They should have oversight of the Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) introduced by the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, with powers to direct and commission skills training, and provide bespoke in-work training for growth sectors in collaboration with colleges, universities, and employers.

With these ten policies, the UK is best positioned to make a real difference to knowledge and productivity in every corner of the country. To level up, we have to devolve down.

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