From education to employment

FE News Talks to Lifelong Learning UK’s Chief Executive David Hunter

Lifelong Learning UK (LLUK) is playing a significant role in the race to plug the UK skills gap. In an exclusive interview, FE News reporter Joe Paget talks to its Chief Executive David Hunter

The term “skills gap” has rapidly become common parlance in Britain. It refers to an absence of training and abilities in the UK workforce that – if plugged – would allow our economy to support a more diverse range of jobs and industries and become more productive. According to some estimates, the skills gap costs British businesses some £10 billion a year.

In a recent Treasury paper, Skills in the Global Economy, the government suggested that “up-skilling” Britain’s workforce is not only essential if we wish to maintain our current prosperity but is also the key to our very survival in the future economic environment. Behind this thinking lies a fear of emerging economies such as China and India. With huge populations and a wealth of natural resources, they have the potential to excel both in the labour-intensive primary and manufacturing industries as well as in knowledge-based industries.

This presents a tough challenge for Britain if it wishes to compete and maintain its position as the world’s fourth largest economy. In less than half a century, the UK’s workforce has been transformed. At one time, around 70% of the workforce was employed in the primary and manufacturing industries. These days, nearly the same proportion work in the service industries. As the Treasury paper points out, both China – with its 20 million graduates – and India, which turns out 2 million graduates every year, pose a significant threat to that position.

Skilling Up

According to the government, Britain’s only option is to continue down the road it has already taken and specialize further in the “knowledge based economy”. If this strategy is to be successful, some major work needs to be done to ensure that the UK workforce is skilled-up and equipped for the job. Traditionally, Britain has lagged behind other European countries when it comes to providing training and qualifications post-16. There has also been a history of poor communication between the demand side ““ businesses ““ and the supply side ““ education and training providers.

The 25 Sector Skills Councils form a crucial part of the government’s strategy for success in this area, something that Lifelong Learning UK’s David Hunter is keenly aware of. As the Sector Skills Council (SSC) responsible for higher and further education, work-based and community learning, and libraries, archives and information services, LLUK is in a unique position. “We”ve got responsibility for all Sector Skills Councils”, says David. “Our workforce of approximately 4 million is the workforce that trains much of the rest of the UK workforce, so it’s very important that we get it right.”

LLUK was set up just over a year ago and was granted official SSC status in January. David has been Chief Executive from the start, and has played a key role in making it all happen. “I think we”ve come a long way in twelve months”, he says. “We”ve got a tremendous bunch of people and some extremely good researchers. We”re building capacity and we”ve already started on the reform agenda of Initial Teacher Training for the Learning and Skills Sector.”

Standards Revolution

Initial Teacher Training (ITT) is part of a new Department for Education and Skills (DfES) strategy designed to equip the learning and skills sector teachers for the future. LLUK is playing a central role in its implementation and will complete a revision of teaching standards by spring 2006, enabling learning providers to prepare courses for the 2007 intake. Standards Verification UK, a wholly owned subsidiary of LLUK, will be responsible for endorsing universities and other awarding bodies.

The idea driving ITT is that learning and skills teachers should receive standardised training and be awarded a licence to practise. All trainee teachers will register with the Institute for Learning and be granted a “passport to learning”. They will receive a “threshold licence to practise” on the completion of initial training, and while operating under this temporary licence they will work towards Qualified Teacher Learning and Skills (QTLS) status.

At this point a full license to practise will be awarded. As David points out, these measures are designed to further the professionalisation of the sector and give learning and skills teachers a professional status and standing on a par with schoolteachers. In this sense, he says, “it’s quite a revolution.”

“I keep thinking about nursing and midwifery”, he explains drawing another analogy, “because it’s not dissimilar, in that we are working towards a licence to practice. They”ve got identification cards and a number from the nursing and midwifery council. The equivalent will be what learning and skills teachers get from the Institute for Learning.” There is a clear logic behind a license to practise for nurses and midwives, and setting and regulating standards for learning and skills is an equally valid way of ensuring that the workforce of the future is kept in safe hands.


LLUK’s work on ITT and QTLS needs to be underpinned by a clear appreciation of the wider context in which it is working. “This is very much a Treasury model of change”, says David. “It relates to all the 25 Sector Skills Councils and it’s all about making UK PLC more productive and ensuring the workforce is as good as it can be”.

He points out that LLUK’s remit goes way beyond implementing professional standards: “We are also responsible for intelligence gathering, and co-ordinating the data so we”re able to make informed decisions about what sort of lecturer or tutor or trainer we”ll need in 3-5 years time, indeed where they”ll be needed, and what sort of training they should have. We”ve got a responsibility, as well, to see that the training is available throughout the UK, to ensure that there isn”t a gap somewhere in the regions.”

He is quick to draw attention to the fact that LLUK is not just responsible for England. “It’s important to remember that we”re a four country organisation, and that the agenda is very different in each country”, he says. “We are supporting the equivalent departments in each country in different ways, and we”ve been developing strategic partnership agreements with them, to clearly define exactly what they want and how they want it.”

Making a Difference

The work LLUK undertakes over the next few years has the potential to make a huge impact on the future success of the UK economy. It carries with it some heavy responsibilities, and LLUK’s capacity to effect and enable change will be clearly measurable in the future. David Hunter is very confident that his team – and their partners across the Skills for Business Network – will do a good job. “I think that what we”re doing really will make a difference”, he says. “It’s important that our workforce is as good as it can get, and that there’s a full understanding of the requirements of business and industry. I think we”re already starting to see big differences”

Joe Paget

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