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  • Writer's pictureDr Marius Ostrowski

Skills matter: A vision for Government

The upcoming general election will be a watershed moment for the UK’s skills agenda. Whichever party forms the next government, solving the UK’s skills challenges means addressing them in a holistic way.

 

The path to prosperity requires a skills system that puts people first, allowing everyone to become a learner wherever and whenever they choose. Raising productivity is impossible without a well-trained workforce that has opportunities to reskill and upskill throughout the course of their careers. And growth will only return to every left-behind place across the UK if we create clear new ways of tapping into the talent and potential of all of its residents.

 

Achieving each of these aims requires sound, pragmatic, visionary policies designed to transform the UK’s skills landscape. These need to be carefully finessed. The vital aim to amend and improve the measures already in place must be balanced against a more ambitious view, which takes the valuable material in the UK’s current education settlement and builds it into a truly world-leading system suited to the 21st century.

 

There are any number of proposals that could be filed under either heading. But there are several that immediately recommend themselves as urgent and pathbreaking interventions, which any future UK Government ought to make.

 

People
 

If we want everyone to enjoy a right to lifelong learning, we have to start by empowering learners to grasp their upskilling opportunities. That means rationalising and simplifying the regulatory and funding landscape to cut down on burdensome and confusing overlaps—and settling which parts of the skills system should be financed by student loans, an employer levy, or government funds. The end-goal here should be a tripartite co-investment system for lifelong learning that combines contributions from learners, businesses, and government into a single ‘pot’.

 

We need to make employers custodians of their employees’ skills journeys, by setting clear expectations for how businesses can support continuing professional development and in-work upskilling as part of their workers’ career development. Some options here might be to set targets for minimum training levels for each worker per year, or give workers the right to request ‘4+1’ or ‘3½+1½’ weekly work and upskilling ‘splits’ in future employment contracts.

 

Education providers, meanwhile, must do more to help learners find their way up the qualification ‘climbing frame’. Overhauling the accessibility of current course offerings is crucial to this, including introducing remote and residential options for students with care, employment, or other place-based and time-sensitive responsibilities. Keeping up the momentum towards a wider choice of modular learning options can lay the foundations for a system of sectoral/subject-specific Lifelong Learning Pathways: ‘step-on, step-off’ upskilling trajectories closely intertwined with career progression expectations.

 

Productivity

 

If we take seriously the idea that productivity is the route to progress, then boosting productivity must become the central mission of the next government. The Labour idea for a Skills England supervisory body is part of this story—but the productivity mission must become firmly ingrained right across Government. Large-scale productivity investment projects should be ringfenced in future Budgets and Spending Reviews. And the remit of the Office for Budget Responsibility should be enhanced to focus on the effects of changes in public finances on expected productivity investment returns.

 

We also need to help employers invest in their staff. The debate over the future of the apprenticeship levy is a key place to start, including finding creative ways to maximise usability for businesses and minimise levy underspend. This might include reserving 50% of levy funds for apprenticeships and 50% for short in-work training courses, or letting businesses allocate up to 100% of their unspent funds to sectoral/local partners. This ambition should be accompanied by fiscal incentives, such as introducing a strategic skills tax credit proportional to a business’s number of apprentices, placement learners, and workers taking new skills courses.

 

In this vein, it is high time to finally overcome the chronic divide between academic and vocational skills. Taking what is best about the ambition of T-levels and the Advanced British Standard, course development needs to do more to incorporate a mixture of academic and vocational learning content across a wider range of qualifications at level 4 and above. That can look like adding ‘productive competence development’ to evaluation criteria and qualification assessment standards. Or it can include making more room for sectoral industry placements as core course requirements.

 

Place

 

Bringing prosperity back to the UK means developing an industrial policy that plays to its regional and sectoral strengths. Among the well-catalogued question-marks over the Local Skills Improvement Plan (LSIP) process is whether they adequately reflect the economic geography of skills partnerships. One solution is to go one step up from the local tier, bringing LSIPs under regional oversight at the ITL 1 level (North East, North West, Yorkshire and the Humber, and so on). This should be accompanied by a new UK industrial strategy that prioritises regional sector specialisms—including comparative advantage, strategic/legacy, and future growth sectors for investment.

 

Businesses must be encouraged to work together to find new solutions to specific skills challenges. Genuinely effective knowledge exchange means targeted partnerships with local education providers, such as long-term reciprocal staff secondments, industry-expert teaching, or researcher industry rotations. And finding new approaches to skills development relies on ‘best practice’ cross-fertilisation between businesses, such as through ‘skills and innovation hubs’ in high-density industrial parks or commercial developments.

 

The same spirit of collaboration needs to be brought out among education providers too, in order to bring skills to local learners when and where they need them. Just as businesses have Chambers of Commerce and now Employer Representative Bodies to corral their interests and speak as one voice on their behalf, education providers in each ITL 1 region need ‘Regional Education Partnerships’ to foster integration across the university, college, and school learning landscape. Their partnerships with business can also be given sharper focus through sectoral ‘skills academies’ that can act as hubs for curriculum co-design, industry-expert teaching, pedagogical training, and knowledge exchange.

 

A lifelong learning society

 

Transforming the UK’s skills system will hardly be the work of one Government, let along a single Parliament. It will take time, careful planning, and dedicated leadership to deliver a genuine skills revolution, and make the UK of 2035 a genuine ‘lifelong learning society’. The UK needs a lifelong learning strategy that embeds key institutions responsible for safeguarding lifelong learning into the heart of government, business, and education. Every stakeholder with an interest in boosting the skills of the nation has their part to play. And only if they all play it will this vision be realised.

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