Greg Wade, Policy Manager, Universities UK

The UK faces many skills challenges in the future not least of all ensuring economic and social success post Brexit.

To meet these challenges, we need to “join up” the skills offer to learners and employers and make sure all parts of the skills system are maximising their impact.

Replacing Retirees

The challenge of meeting employers’ future demand for skills is clearly spelt out in the most recent Working Futures research published in February 2020. Despite the uncertainty around the impact of Brexit overall demand for extra employees up to 2027 is almost 1 million. Replacement demand, to cover those retiring or leaving the workforce, will add an incredible eleven and a half million additional vacancies that need to be filled.

Sustained Growth in Higher Level Skilled Roles

Higher level skilled roles will be a significant part of this demand. The occupational categories that are the biggest recruiters of graduates, managerial, professional and associate professional represent 78% of the new jobs created in the next ten years and over 5 million of the replacement jobs.

Developing the Resident Workforce

Brexit may mean that the option of recruiting EU nationals to meet some of this demand could be constrained in the near future. This is leading to the welcome development of many employers seeking to review their UK recruitment to explore new ways of offering greater opportunities to more people. In a recent report we produced on Degree Apprenticeships every single employer we spoke to wanted to explore how they could be used to broaden their talent pool.

Levelling Up and Disruption

The growth in jobs, and in higher skilled better paid jobs will not be even across the UK. Much of the growth in private sector jobs has been in London and the South East, the two regions in England that have the highest proportions of highly skilled workers and the highest rates of value added to the economy from these jobs.

It will be essential, not least of all to close regional productivity gaps and increase prosperity, to rebalance the growth in highly skilled jobs across the UK. Smaller companies, supported by universities and colleges, will have a vital role to play and they especially need improved access to apprenticeships.

We need to add to these challenges the increased and accelerating disruption of sectors, organisations and occupations.

The World Economic Forum predicts that the number of different careers that people will have in the future will increase, the skills and roles will change more rapidly creating an overwhelming need to continually reskill the workforce and reinforce lifelong learning.

Adult Training and Retraining

The challenge will be for the post-18 education and training sector to keep up with this pace of change and provide a flexible response. There is a strong current focus on vocational and technical education and apprenticeships.

However lifelong learning will require retraining, restarting and recombining skills. It will involve changing careers, changing occupations and being able to switch between levels of education and different qualifications. We need to develop learners not just for their first job but for their future, multiple careers. This will include the need for clear progression pathways underpinned by collaboration between universities and colleges and more flexible provision such as module-based funding which we are promoting to government.

The proposed new National Skills Fund should be welcomed because of its emphasis on lifelong learning and the step towards a “right to retrain”.

Universities and FE Colleges working together

In order to meet the significant challenges that we face, and create real opportunities for success we need the National Skills Fund to be seen as part of a collective and connected response to meeting these needs.

Universities have a significant role to play but so too do further education colleges, and in order to meet the demand for higher level skills opportunities the talent pool must be increased at all levels.

This is an opportunity for Higher Education and Further Education to collaborate, especially at the local level, to create opportunities, meet skills demand and boost local growth. Now is the time to supercharge collaboration to address these challenges.


The National Skills Fund needs to be additional funding to add value to the skills offer and not become a reallocation of funding within either adult further education or higher education. We need the skills system working together not being pitched against each other in a destructive battle over resources.

Top Three Recommendations:

1: The National Skills Fund Should Encourage HE/FE Collaboration

The National Skills Fund should represent new money that encourages stronger collaboration between higher and further education including delivery at Level 4 and 5.

2: The National Skills Fund should Facilitate Transferability of Qualifications

The National Skills Fund creates an opportunity to enhance the connections and transferability between qualifications, and ensure flexibility and choice for learners between qualifications and levels to support lifelong learning.

3: Supporting SMEs with their Skill Needs

The National Skills Fund should have a strong focus on supporting SME engagement in skills development, increasing the opportunities for them to recruit apprentices, and supporting universities and colleges to engage with them at the local level.

Greg Wade, Policy Manager, Universities UK


Making a Success of the National Skills Fund

As we enter the 2020s, adults and employers are confronted with unprecedented economic and labour market change, in this context NCFE and Campaign for Learning asked twelve authors to set out their initial thoughts on the National Skills Fund, and the journey towards a ‘right to retraining’. 

These leading thinkers recommend policies for the reform of adult education to support a changing economy in this collection of articles.

Exploring the proposed National Skills Fund and an individual’s right to retraining in more detail, these articles highlight some of the major challenges the policy faces, alongside issues which are set to further impact the economy.

The authors are:

You may also be interested in these articles:

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