Today (21 Jan) we see the launch of the Skills for Jobs White Paper, which presents a critical opportunity to create the kind of policy environment in England that is needed now and in the future.
For almost two years the Independent Commission of the College of the Future has been working with the education sector, employers, students, unions and others to set out an ambitious future vision for colleges across the UK fit for a fairer, more sustainable and prosperous economy.
Does the White Paper meet our ambitions for delivering on one of our key themes: productivity?
The devastating impact of COVID-19 is creating the perfect storm to kickstart action. The pandemic has brought change and is also augmenting many of the trends already in train.
The crisis comes on the back of a very turbulent period, not only shaped by significant economic shocks such as the global financial crisis in 2008 and Brexit, but longer running global megatrends that impact the future of work - note demographic and climate change, along with technological advances.
Lockdowns have accelerated technology adoption and innovations in ways of working. At the same time, it has highlighted threats and challenges to industries requiring face to face contact such as hospitality, as well as accelerating long-running industrial decline in others, to which we need to respond.
There will need to be an increasing pace of learning, retraining, and upskilling – both in and out of work.
Indeed, the CBI anticipate that 9 out of ten employees in the workforce in the next ten years will require upskilling and the OECD estimate that most jobs in the future will require modest to significant amounts of training ranging from at least 1 year to over three years.
This all raises important future priorities for colleges. But unlocking the positive benefits is not inevitable or easy. That’s why it is significant that colleges are starting to be recognised by the UK Government for their potential to build back better and level up.
The very premise of the White Paper acknowledges that increasing skills demands in a modern digital-enabled economy, combined with long running and deep-rooted skills deficiencies in key growing sectors, calls for a better solution to enhance the effectiveness of the skills system.
Putting employers at the heart of a revolutionised system
The Government has rightly committed to putting employers at the heart of a revolutionised system. Colleges have a strong track record working with employers, of all sizes and sectors. An expanded role for colleges in boosting productivity through strengthening strategic partnerships with employers has been a central theme in the work of the Commission.
Changes in governments, and funding, over time, have moved away from a national network of Sector Skills Councils, and fragmented the institutional landscape and routes to reach and influence employers in scale.
Colleges now have the chance to reinvigorate their business partnerships and ensure their skills requirements are identified and integrated into local skills strategies moving forward and align with national policy priorities.
There is a need to better anticipate ongoing changes in requirements, as well as to more effectively co-ordinate and tailor the response, to keep pace with the ever-changing demands of growing sectors locally. Advanced manufacturing, construction, creative industries, business services, education and health and social care and the green economy must be areas of focus.
The establishment of the announced dedicated business centres and the development of tailored skills plans with employers can provide a sound basis to develop and offer skills products alongside wider business services.
Strengthening local skills delivery infrastructure
In practice, this has to be about strengthening local skills delivery infrastructure on the ground in local communities, where colleges, schools, universities, private providers and businesses are enabled to work together to meet skills needs.
If the detail is there and the delivery is done well, it could enable colleges to better act as strategic partners, providing the expanded support to local employers that is needed for business to be more productive and innovative.
None of the measures to address employer needs will be effective without meaningful action on lifelong learning that is accessible to all.
This is necessary to raise the future platform of skills, to enable people to transition into growing areas of employment and retain a foothold in the labour market, and to support career progression. Long-term investment is vital here.
The implementation of the White Paper and future legislation needs to enable colleges, and wider partners in the education system, giving them the space to adapt to ensure the system can sufficiently flex to retain currency and relevance in future in a dynamic world of work.
That means standardised programmes, curriculum and forms of assessment of the past will no longer be fit for the future, and there must be more local flexibility to respond to evolving needs and engage employers, especially smaller businesses.
But, the key test is whether it can. Is the White Paper a basis to so do?
It is certainly better than the alternative – that is we muddle through with the current system.
Lesley Giles, Director of Work Advance and member of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future