The role of the tertiary education system in meeting the work force challenges of the country has never been more important.

As a society, we’re entering new territory with the coming of the Fourth Industrial Revolution - automation, artificial intelligence and digital technology. In addition, the looming challenges of Brexit, and an ageing population, are creating rising demand for those with qualifications at level 4 and above.

The essential requirement for continual up and re-skilling, lifelong learning and study of higher level qualifications at all levels is evident.

By 2030, it is estimated that there will be a UK talent deficit of between 600,000 and 1.2 million workers for both our financial and business sector and our technology, media and telecommunications sector.

Universities and further education will have a vital role to play in addressing this challenge through delivering their own missions but will increasingly need to work collaboratively and forge pathways and progression routes to higher level skills.

The government's review of post-18 education and funding in England, expected early next year, will need to have a strong focus on how we can create a joined-up and responsive tertiary system that meets the skills needs of the country.

Employers report they are concerned with staff skills shortages at level 4 and 5. We hope that the post-18 review will offer a workable suggestion about how the gaps can be filled, but also how progression to and from these routes can be addressed.

Challenging The False Divide

Back in September, Sam Gyimah, Universities Minister stated the importance of challenging the false divide between higher education and further education.

This is wholeheartedly backed by new research commissioned by Universities UK which found higher education providers, further education and employers already provide integrated pathways for skills development as well as traditional, academic routes.

These are often innovative and exciting partnerships that are working to meet skills needs in specific sectors and regions, to ensure that courses are industry-relevant, and that they provide clear progression routes and opportunities to learn flexibly.

As can be seen with examples such as Middlesex Universities’ Centre for Apprenticeships, working collaboratively with local further education providers, these sorts of partnerships can support the alignment and growth of apprenticeships at all levels and ensure clear routes for progression.

Another example is the University of Birmingham collaboration with University College Birmingham (UCB) and South & City College Birmingham to create a single system to encourage progression to higher level skills in engineering.

Across the HE sector there were 2,580 degree apprentices registered in the 2016-17, with 1,750 having started in that academic year. This is an important and growing area of provision.

Employers and apprentices value the fact that it is a work-based qualification that also confers the award of a degree. Partnerships such as those above help to clarify progression pathways and encourage more learners from a broader range of backgrounds to progress to higher level skills and qualifications.

Flexible Life Long Learning

Support for opportunities to study flexibly is also important. A recent project set up by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Universities UK, which looked at the decline in part-time student enrolments, found that a generation of 'lost learners' are missing out on the chance to develop the higher level skills that employers and the UK economy need.

This work found that the kind of partnerships mentioned above will be particularly important in reversing this trend, by providing flexible industry relevant provision. It also proposed that government must also look at turning the Apprenticeship Levy into a more flexible 'Skills Levy' so that it can cover a wider range of training, including more flexible study.

Greater support should also be offered to students moving between work and study across their lifetimes, with the education system supporting shorter and more flexible courses.

There have recently been some reports of cutting tuition fees to £6,500, as a potential recommendation coming out of the post-18 review. A reduction in fee - without the shortfall being made up by government - would have a devastating impact on the ability of universities to offer the high-quality of courses and facilities that employers and students need, and to build effective partnerships across the tertiary education system and within their regions. 

It would also have significant implications for the amount an institution could use for access, participation and retention measures. In 2017, 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas in England were 82% more likely to enter higher education than they were in 2006.

Our future workforce needs to be creative, resilient and committed to lifelong learning. The government must work with universities and colleges to develop policy that tackles the skills gap and encourages lifelong learning.

This means ensuring that all parts of the tertiary system are sustainably funded and developing policy that is joined up and avoids creating artificial divides.

If the UK is to retain a competitive advantage on the global stage post-Brexit we must encourage and support more of the population through higher level study. It’s good for individuals, our economy and society.

Chris Hale, Director of Policy, Universities UK

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