From education to employment

Further Education in the UK Needs a Reboot

Hadi Moussa

Hadi Moussa, Managing Director (EMEA) at Coursera, discusses how flexible learning models are essential to bridge the digital skills gap and prepare the UK to thrive in the digital economy.

Successive governments have not supplied further education the resources and reform needed for the changing world of work. Vocational skills training is still too inaccessible, and divergent perspectives of academic and vocational education remain marked by expensive fees for a range of degrees, averaging £9,000 a year, regardless of market demand. Employers previously expressing concern about entry level hires deficient in numeracy and literacy, are today alarmed by the digital skills gap, in which staff lack skills for the fourth industrial revolution, characterised by technology and data.

Last year, according to the UK government, over 80% of all jobs advertised in the UK now require digital skills, however employers say the lack of available talent is the biggest factor holding back growth. Estimates suggest the digital skills gap costs the UK economy as much as £63 billion a year in potential GDP.

Likewise, the government’s 2021 Quantifying the Data Skills Gap Report noted just under half of UK companies are struggling to recruit for data roles over the previous two years, with a limited supply of graduates with specialist data skills from universities. Half of all workers surveyed reported they had not received data skills training within the last two years despite having an interest in digital training.

Coursera’s Global Skills Report 2023

Coursera’s Global Skills Report 2023 also unearthed the skills gap the UK faces when preparing for the future of work. Analysing the career readiness of over 124 million learners worldwide, the report identifies leaders in business, technology and data science skills proficiency among 100 countries supported by Coursera. The study ranked the UK 64th globally in skills development, behind the Dominican Republic and Bolivia, down from 38th place in 2022.

Notable deficiencies in the UK’s skills include Technology skills, with UK learners performing badly relative to their global peers in Software Engineering (23%), Mobile Development (26%), Security Engineering (33%), and Computer Programming (41%). The UK was also found to be deficient in Data Science, with UK performance lagging behind in key data science skills including Statistical ProgrammingData Management, and Data Analysis.

Technology skills in Europe compared to the UK

Leading countries in the Coursera Skills Report were Switzerland, Spain and Germany, with Europe ranking second globally for technology and data science. The report found European learners are more likely to invest in data science skills, including artificial neural networks and deep learning, supporting the emerging AI market.

By contrast, UK learners were more likely to take courses teaching entrepreneurship, scoring well in human resources and marketing. Learners scored competitively in technology skills such as web development, yet it was found UK leaders could further invest in software engineering.

This disparity has been reflected in the relative performance of the UK and European economies. The British economy grew just 0.1 percent in the first three months of this year; the little growth there was, was partly driven by the information and communications services industries, which includes computer programming and consultancy. By contrast, Germany’s economy grew by 6% during the same period and the Eurozone as a whole outperformed the UK.

A misfiring education system in the UK is partly to blame, characterised by a lack of access to affordable, relevant tuition. Just this month, an all party parliamentary group unveiled research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found the attainment gap between poorer pupils and their better-off classmates is just as large now as it was 20 years ago. The report finds that the pandemic is likely to have increased inequalities in education, and that the inequalities suffered by disadvantaged pupils persist beyond their school years, eventually impacting on their earnings.

The good news is that a flexible approach to education can help to close attainment and salary gaps by making education more relevant, affordable, and accessible. For this approach to be realised, businesses, governments, and education providers must align their skills requirements with skills provision delivered at every stage of a pupil’s education and then enabled with Further Education.

What can be done

Governments and businesses must develop the link between skills and GDP, by supporting skills training. The combined average GDP per capita of countries where learners have demonstrated cutting-edge proficiency scores is four times higher than that of countries where learners are falling behind in skills proficiencies.

Education must be tailored to the high-growth areas of the labour market, and to the most urgent skills shortages. It must also make use of non-traditional delivery modes, such as online learning and digital technologies to make education more immersive and interactive.

Embrace online learning

Online learning can be more affordable and accessible than traditional methods. Through online delivery, educational providers have lower overheads and courses can be provided with far less cost. For students, there are no additional expenses like commuting or accommodation – expenses often tied to conventional apprenticeships. Online tutoring can also fit into everyday work routines, which helps skills to be continually updated, essential for an evolving digital world. Access to high-quality, job-focused online education creates social and economic mobility. 91% of learners in the Coursera Global Skills Report reported career benefits from enrolling in a Coursera training program.

Embrace digital and AI

AI proficiency is needed in the future workplace. A survey of UK employers has found that 67% of respondents believe it will be important for candidates to have AI skills, experience, or qualifications. Learners without postgraduate degrees are already investing in the foundational skills needed to work with AI, and business leaders should continue investing in foundational AI-related skills training across their workforces.

Reconsider qualifications

Non-traditional vocational qualifications are growing in importance. Demand for Coursera Professional Certificates, a type of microcredential in specific skills, has risen by 24% year-on-year in the UK. Microcredentials are also effective in preparing talent for new careers, and are considered valuable by 76% of employers. Accordingly, the Ministry of Science and Education in the Republic of Kazakhstan, for example, launched a nationwide initiative to prepare 20,000 students across 25 public universities for the digital economy by embedding over 600 career credentials into degree programs.

In conclusion

With the digital economy defining industry for decades to come, vocational education in the UK still struggles to be an equitable gateway into work for every student. Yet by pairing online learning with traditional models of further education, we can create a more holistic, flexible, and responsive system, encompassing digital, data and business skills. This would benefit employers seeking to meet changing skills requirements and apprentices who require greater flexibility to learn in accordance with their circumstances.

Businesses, government, and higher education leaders investing in skills also invest in greater economic advantages through employment. Investment in digital skills will be key. This is understood by the European Commission who plan to ensure that 70% of adults have basic digital skills by 2025. The UK must make similar commitments to digital literacy. Combined with the versatility of online learning, vocational skills training will underpin the UK’s readiness for a thriving digital future.

The global digital economy is predicted to grow from 66 million jobs today to 190 million by 2025, and these jobs are likely to be found in data analysis, artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, digital marketing and strategy, and process automation. If the UK is to take advantage of this landscape and become the global tech superpower it aspires to be as part of it’s New Digital Strategy, then Further Education must become more accessible, flexible and relevant. This is achievable and exciting times lie ahead.

By Hadi Moussa, Managing Director EMEA, Coursera


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