2 November 2021

Skills to pay the bills?

By Chris Skidmore MP

Rishi Sunak`s pledge last week to invest an extra £3.8 billion in skills and education was a reassuring concrete step forward for those concerned that talk of ‘skills revolution’ might be just that.

In his speech at the Conservative Party conference, Boris Johnson echoed Tony Blair’s famous ‘education, education, education’ dictum, saying investment in ‘skills, skills, skills’ is how we will solve the nation’s productivity puzzle. The budget shows that the PM is willing to put his money where his mouth is, yet this influx of extra cash may not be enough if the goal is to truly level up the UK skills system. Without bold and wide-ranging reforms, much of this money risks being poured into a system which often fails to facilitate the ambitions of learners.

This poses a significant challenge for the Government, yet it is one that many ministers are already trying to tackle. Levelling up minister Michael Gove used his conference speech to call for more ‘scientifically rigorous routes into work’ while the Minister for Levelling Up, Neil O’Brien, has called for ‘parity of esteem’ between the academic and technical sides. ‘Adding 50% more hours in the workplace to T-Levels’ was a strong start, he argued.

O’Brien is undoubtedly right about T-Levels, but ministers need to go much further to shake up the UK’s creaky adult learning system.

On the fringes of the same conference in Manchester, the Lifelong Education Commission, which I Chair, launched its first report. It describes how to reform adult learning so that traditional barriers to lifelong education are removed.

At present, the formal process for acquiring new skills is incredibly constrained both in terms of opportunities and financial resources. Students can leave education at 18 without basic functional skills. For these individuals, there are too few opportunities to return to learning.

And for those looking for formal routes to acquire new and better skills, the pathways are complex. People cannot see the wood for the trees. Unsurprisingly, they lose heart and give up.

The Lifelong Learning Entitlement and expansion of technical education, particularly for Level 4 and 5 skills, has the potential to create new journeys into learning for those for whom a graduate route was not the way. But new partnerships between Higher and Further Education providers are needed too.

As a former universities minister, I know reform is essential to enable more people to reach their potential and help the economy to grow – surely the two core tenets of any levelling up plan.

Over the next decade, major structural changes in the labour market will mean thousands of individuals will be unable to get stable work in their original professions. In a fast-paced and unpredictable economy, thousands if not millions of people already in work will need to upskill and retrain. And in the week when COP26 has launched, we should remind ourselves that if we want green jobs, then we will have to train people for them, with all the relevant lifelong skills that working in renewable industry requires. Technologies are not going to stand still from now until 2050, and we need a plan about how we are going to invest in the human capital required to deliver net zero, possibly one of the highest priorities facing the government after the collapse of the Green Homes Deal due to labour- ultimately skills- shortages.

I established the Lifelong Education Commission with the think tank ResPublica to address precisely this challenge: to provide a platform for leaders from both HE and FE to plot a common route to reform.

Currently we have a partition in our education system, with a handful of FE options for most adults and university the preserve of the young when it needs to be expanding its horizons to offer more flexible course provision to adult learners at every stage of their career. This boundary has to be removed.

Instead, we need a place-based approach, with equitable partnerships between HE and FE providers, and greater flexibility that empowers individual learners to choose their own path.

Of course, money is one obvious barrier; and our report calls for wider access to student loans and maintenance grants for all would-be learners. But it would be a mistake to think more money alone will solve our skills problems.

We need to understand why UK adults resist retraining in contrast to our European neighbours. The Commission has set out the first principle of reform: flexibility, and the need to remove barriers that can be easily removed.

Careers advice needs reforming to create a single source of guidance; Equivalent or Lower Qualification rules need to be abolished to support retraining; and we need shorter, modular courses so learners earn ‘micro-credentials’ that can stacked up into larger units.

The Government has given us an impressive new budget which has investment in skills at its heart. To achieve their ambition, education reform is a prerequisite. The Lifelong Education Commission is offering a roadmap.

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Chris Skidmore MP was Universities Minister 2018-2020 and is Chair of the ResPublica Lifelong Education Commission

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.