Greg Wade, Policy Manager at Universities UK

In amongst the flurry of policy announcements from @EducationGovUK, including the Teaching Excellence Framework, post qualifications admissions and the post-18 review, there was the very important, and welcome, Skills for Jobs white paper.

These announcements, alongside the current post-16 consultations on level 2 and below and level 3 represent a major skills reform programme and a major opportunity for the skills sector to work with employers to meet skills needs and drive opportunity and growth.

The white paper provides many proposals which build upon the Prime Ministers keynote skills speech last September including boosting funding for further education, strengthening links with employers, meeting local skills needs and increasing choice and flexibility through the proposed post 18 Lifelong Learning Entitlement.

The Skills Buildings Blocks To Support Future Recovery

It may seem challenging, in the current lockdown and with indications of a double-dip recession, to think about future economic recovery, but it is essential that we put in place the skills buildings blocks to support future recovery. The challenges for everyone, not just employers, have been considerable in both scope and scale. Putting major parts of the economy on pause is unprecedented. The pace of economic change, which was already accelerating, has got faster, with one business leader saying that they had experienced six years of change in six months. Almost overnight whole sectors have faced major change.

These challenges have placed considerable pressure not only on the skills of people in the existing workforce, including those who have had to rapidly change careers, but also on the future skills needs of the economy and how we reduce unemployment. How much does the skills white paper ensure that the skills sector can respond to these needs both now and in the future?

Boosting Funding For Further Education

It is clear that the Further Education Sector needs additional investment, so this is very welcome. We need all parts of the skills system supported to supercharge future economic growth and success. The college sector, together with universities, will have a key role in addressing technical skills gaps, especially at level 4 and 5 with the development of the new higher technical qualifications.

There is a pressing need to increase success and progression at level 2 and 3 not only because it is a vital part of levelling up and increasing opportunity, but also because you cannot meet the higher-level skills needs that are a key driver of economic growth without expanding the talent pool. This is especially so, given the impact of Brexit and the potential turning off of the tap of European talent.**** Again colleges will have a key role the proposals in all of the consultations will need to come together to support flexible opportunity and progression right up to higher level qualifications.

Strengthening Links With Employers

We should applaud any proposals that seek to enhance the collaboration between skills providers and employers. Employer engagement in learning and employer-led qualifications are now a successful model for the delivery of apprenticeships, including degree apprenticeships.

It is positive that this model will help drive the development of technical education at level 4 and 5. With change occurring so rapidly we need effective ways of ensuring employers can work with skills providers to meet their needs as quickly and flexibly as possible.

Meeting Local Skills Needs

The local level is vitally important in responding to employers skills needs, because many smaller companies are locally based and support from the skills sector needs to be tailored to the make-up of the local economy. A local focus is also a key route to increasing opportunities for both young people and retraining adults. The proposed Local Skills Improvement Plans will be able to build upon the Skills Advisory Panels and the collaborative economic strategies that have been developed by Local Enterprise Partnerships and Mayoral Combined Authorities in partnership with the skills sector.

However, it is important that local skills initiatives are well informed by national and sectoral intelligence and advice. The national Skills and Productivity Board could play a key role in informing and advising the local plans saving time and resources that would have to be duplicated if localities had to develop their own intelligence. Sectoral information and intelligence will also be needed to ensure the best possible improvement plans and the potential for revamping the Sector Deals process to support this was highlighted in our recent vision for universities.

Increasing choice and flexibility through the proposed post 18 Lifelong Learning Entitlement

The new proposed Lifelong Learning Entitlement has great potential to increase choice for learners, both those young people entering post 18 education for the first time but also those who might need to retrain and reskill. The commitment to increased flexibility and choice is welcome, especially exploring the role credit and modular provision could play, something we called for in our work with the CBI on flexible learning.

There is still considerable detail to be worked out, but ensuring that what the Prime Minister called the “pointless and non-sensical gulf” between “the so-called academic and the so-called practical varieties of education” when "everything is ultimately a skill", is a priority.

We need all providers to work together with employers and officials to ensure that learners are empowered to combine different pieces of their lifelong learning jigsaw (at different levels, both technical and academic, part-time and full-time and from different providers) to support their careers and meet employers skills needs. This will need to be clearly spelt out in careers information, advice and guidance. Policymakers will also need to make sure that the levels of funding for individuals ensure the delivery of high quality and sustainable provision across the board and consider what maintenance funding is needed.

So Where Do Universities Fit In?

Universities are already delivering about a third of level 4 and 5 technical provision, as well as higher level and degree apprenticeships. Universities have long experience of delivering courses with strong employer engagement where the qualifications are employer-led it has just been called professional education. The delivery of Nursing, Health, Engineering, Science programmes and many others such as Law and Accountancy have had a strong professional focus. We estimate over 40% of undergraduate students are on courses like this.

There are already wide-ranging and extensive links between universities and further education colleges that have a strong focus on enhancing opportunities and meeting employers skills needs, often at the local level. Universities are working with colleges and employers through the new Institutes of Technology, have supported University Technical Colleges and the National Colleges with a partnership led by the University of Birmingham being identified as the preferred bidder to work with the National College of Advanced Transport and Infrastructure. Now could be an opportunity to encourage and develop university and college partnerships to realise the vision outlined in the Future of Colleges report for England report for England of a networked tertiary education partnership to meet employer needs.

Before COVID-19 the evidence of the importance of professional, higher level skilled occupations driving jobs growth was overwhelming. Research from the Resolution Foundation found that 90% of net increase in jobs growth between 2008-18 were in professional and technical roles. The robust demand for degree apprenticeships during the current downturn also indicates the importance of higher level skills.

To meet the expected future demand for higher level skills again we need a whole skills approach, combining academic and technical, universities and colleges or we simply won’t be able to meet demand. The focus on STEM subjects is important but we must not forget services, a key driver of employment, growth and exports and the largest technical skills shortage by number of vacancies. Universities are clearly a key part of the skills system and its response to meeting technical and higher level skills needs

There are some welcome and positive building blocks for building a skills system that drives economic growth and increases opportunities.

Supercharging Economic Growth

To really supercharge economic growth and deliver the Prime Ministers vision of a skills system that benefits learners, employers and the nations of the UK as a whole we need:

A whole skills approach that brings together colleges, universities and other providers to enhance engagement with employers, clarify how local and national skills needs can be met and respond quickly and effectively

A Lifelong Learning Entitlement that puts genuine and maximum choice in the hands of learners suitably informed by information, advice and guidance

Clear pathways, progression and combinations for learners that are flexible and enable learners to develop in ways that suit their needs and circumstances.

We look forward to working with colleges, local partners, employers, learners and policy makes to help make this vision a reality.

Greg Wade, Policy Manager at Universities UK

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