Working life is changing and gone are the days when people stayed within the same job or profession for their whole working lives. The ability to learn completely new skills or to develop existing skills to a deeper level is increasingly key to ensuring that people can remain productive and economically self-sufficient.

It is therefore vital that education adapts to meet the needs of a changing economy, by being able to fit around these changing patterns of employment and delivering cutting-edge work-related skills. The traditional model of full-time study, though still very popular with school-leavers, is not the answer for this growing cohort who require access to lifelong learning.

In order to deliver what the nation needs, providers must think differently about what they offer, and the policy environment must move away from the ‘one size fits all’ model. 

None of this is to downplay the other benefits of education. Many enjoy learning for learning’s sake and there should always be a place for that style of curiosity-led education. Yet for a growing number, the focus has now shifted to employability and career progression.

Traditionally seen as the preserve of FE colleges, who have always provided a broad range of qualifications with a strong element of vocational learning, higher education (HE) institutions have been (perhaps a little unfairly) criticised for being less focussed on the work-readiness of their graduates. With all universities now being judged on the employability of their graduates, this offering is now a real focus. However, there is still an inherent lack of flexibility.

With both funding and policy pointing towards a first-time, three-year full-time degree, part-time and lifelong learning opportunities within higher education, where learners can dip in and out of education as needed, have languished.

Even in FE, there are challenges to developing real “learner-centric” flexibility. Unlike degrees where universities have a lot of freedom to develop their own provision within a broad quality assurance framework, FE colleges deliver qualifications which are validated by third-parties, meaning that they do not have the capacity to change easily. One only has to look at the Government’s flagship apprenticeship policy to see how restrictive such frameworks can be. 

However, some institutions are paving the way for a new generation of higher and further education, where study is integrated into everyday life. One example of this is Coventry University College, which offers working professionals, career switchers and those seeking to earn while they pursue an undergraduate qualification a more flexible alternative and affordable alternative to full-time education. 

This is a model that many are keen to move towards, although there are challenges standing in the way of its widespread adoption, not least the fact that existing operational arrangements, such as employment contracts, rarely support the 24/7 learning that is necessary for a flexible learning scenario. By going through a subsidiary and group structure, Coventry University has completely reorganised itself in order to enable this provision.

The Warwickshire College Group (WCG) is another example of a further education institution engaging with the local business community to encourage flexible learning through collaboration. Training courses are backed up by strong industry links with local businesses, providing learners with significant exposure to a number of careers within the engineering sector. 

Equally, within the private provider space, there are countless examples of specialist training providers offering flexible and relevant industry experience. These courses give individuals the opportunity to receive state-of-the-art training whilst building invaluable employer links. 

It is fair to say that the Government recognises the skills challenge described above but has so far failed to come up with a coherent and long-term skills strategy to address the gap. Long-term is a crucial criterion here.

Many countries with better productivity and skills also have more stable and consistent skills strategies, introducing changes as infrequently as once every 6 or 12 years.

UK policy changes yearly and sometimes even more often, making real and enduring progress all but impossible. The rushed implementations of both the apprenticeship reforms and the introduction of T Levels are recent examples of this phenomenon.

Against this background, what might be done to facilitate the development of flexible and diverse learning opportunities to meet lifelong learning needs?

A start might be to develop greater engagement between institutions and businesses. For instance, SMEs may not have the internal resources to spend much time thinking about their future training and development needs. This gives institutions the opportunity to assist, perhaps providing a skills audit to help develop the short, medium and long-term plan for the business. 

Whilst the question of who would foot this bill for this, and whether the necessary resources are available, remains to be answered, there is an unmistakable gap in the market for the development of a strong skills offering. Businesses and institutions must come together for the greater good. It needs to be less about competition and more about collaboration. 

There is a need for collaboration between institutions and between different parts of the tertiary education landscape too. Individually no institution can meet the needs of every business in the region but together they can come up with something that’s strong, that all can invest in, which meets the needs of businesses.

This would also generate economies of scale. For example, whilst one business may only need training for two apprentices, across the region there may well be 30 or 40 such apprentices, making it a worthwhile pursuit for local colleges. With this in mind, colleges might rebuild their efforts in understanding what is going on in businesses and regions and then develop training that meets those needs.

Another potential solution may be to revisit Individual Learning Accounts, a scheme that was launched by the Department for Education and Employment in 1997, with the purpose of supporting adult education. The system was aimed at widening participation in learning and helping students to overcome financial barriers, with the first million people to apply becoming eligible for a grant towards the costs of studying, if the individual contributed some of their own money. 

Whilst the system was abandoned in 2001 over concerns that some providers were mis-selling courses, technology has moved on and the idea could possibly be revisited. A more flexible approach could be to offer employers the opportunity to top accounts up, incentivising work-related skills development, whilst giving individuals the opportunity to choose their own path over their lifetime.

The education sector, whether through general FE colleges or universities, is used to a model where each organisation offers everything. Whether this will, over time, become the exception rather than the norm remains to be seen, with greater institutional specialisation and more collaboration between organisations. 

Currently, there is very little policy support for flexible learning, and moving forward institutions must consider taking responsibility for proactively encouraging this provision. Small changes within the education space, supported by collaboration with organisations and the local community could have the power to make huge differences to the UK's skills and productivity profile; encouraging both adults returning to education and students to take the next steps in their education journey.  

Smita Jamdar, Partner and Head of Education, Shakespeare Martineau

About Smita Jamdar: Higher Education Commissioner, & Chair of Policy Connects Degree Apprenticeships Inquiry, Smita leads the education team at Shakespeare Martineau,  where she oversees the firms’ work for its 100 university and college clients based across England and Wales.

Smita has over 20 years' experience of advising on higher education law. As an education specialist, Smita is a co-authour of Workplace Stress, Law and Practice (2003), a contributor to Higher Education Law (2002) and a sought-after speaker at education conferences, presenting on topics such as student discipline, duties of care to students, plagiarism, health and safety management and workplace stress. 

About Shakespeare MartineauRecognised as one of the leading firms nationally for advice to universities, Shakespeare Martineau believes that legal counsel is only one piece of the jigsaw and bespoke solutions are designed firmly around clients’ needs. 

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