Article in Research Professional: Spotlight on Skills

The world of education is changing, but an independent group of experts has some suggestions on how universities can adapt. 

How could the UK boost economic growth by more than £100 billion over ten years? According to the first report published by the Commission on Sustainable Learning for Life, Work and a Changing Economy, which I chair, radically improving the provision and relevance of skills and training would do the trick.

That first report, published in October, pointed out that improvements in economic productivity and social mobility would also follow. The commission, which is supported by Pearson UK but remains strictly independent, is now about to launch its second report and a few key themes have emerged.

The commission has been formulated and operated much like a select committee in the House of Commons so there is a strong focus on evidence-based recommendations for improving process and outcomes. It has also sought to think in the long-term and holistically, so, although it focuses on training and skills, its recommendations will affect all education sectors, including higher education.

This has meant taking three considerations into account: the role universities have within their cities and regions in terms of economic and social impact; the consequences for the sector if, as the commission recommends, there is a re-emphasis on the value of other post-18 provision; and, the role many universities already have in delivering skills and training.

Providing choice

One big concern of the commission was the limited range of options available to UK students at levels two and three, and the unintended consequences of summative assessments and league tables.

Nowhere else in Europe puts so much emphasis on individual performance at the age of 16, yet the economies most noted for skills provision also create more opportunities, choice and fluidity in the run-up to this critical age. In Finland, for example, the notion of there being “no dead end”, in other words, no blocks for students on choosing between academic courses, provides the young person with meaningful options at all stages.

Coupled to the introduction of T levels—a reform welcomed by the commission, although not unreservedly—the case for providing more options at both levels two and three is powerful. For universities, this would require a more sophisticated approach to the selection of undergraduates, but the likely reward would be an easier pathway to delivering diversity and social mobility.

Other areas of interest to the commission were the apprenticeship levy and target, and lifelong learning and career development. Higher education is much more diverse than is often assumed. There is a growing number of small universities catering for specific sectors, and the number of degree apprenticeships being offered while still small is increasing.

Stimulating yet more innovation and specialisation would be good for the sector. More should be made of existing opportunities for skills and training in higher education, strengthened with a more constructive approach to work experience and benefits.

Devolving funding

The commission was also determined to explore regional and city disparities. With the recent referendum on European Union membership exposing deep divisions socially, geographically and economically, it not only undertook research work on these issues specifically, but also formally met in Nottingham (which narrowly backed Brexit) and visited Newcastle (which narrowly backed Remain) and Sunderland (which strongly backed Brexit).

This work has also brought the relationship between education and the world of work into sharp focus. The economic footprint across cities and regions of most universities is generally recognised, but the commission is conscious of the need in many cases to develop stronger civic leadership. Universities are ideally placed to augment, or even initiate, efforts to bring key actors together to formulate and deliver strategies to uplift local economies. To give traction to such initiatives, the commission is interested in the idea of devolving elements of education funding to such sub-regional groups, providing appropriate levels of transparency and accountability are in place.

This extends to encouraging stronger relationships between further and higher education. A way forward is to encourage more participation between the two sectors. The commission has not made precise recommendations on this but the theme is a logical extension of its other suggestions.

Preparing for work

Virtually every business body and many businesses express concern about the relationship—or lack of it—between education and the world of work; this emerged as a key issue in Newcastle. But the commission was really impressed with the evidence it found of co-operation and partnership and the massive possibilities offered by emerging technology to improve access, communication and remote learning.

Being “work ready” is, for many sectors, and particularly services, of increasing importance. There is a market for modules for work readiness, tutoring and career development. A good example of this is Finito (represented on the commission), which offers one-to-one mentoring, coaching and guidance to help first-time job hunters make the transition from education to employment. Universities and colleges should be open to either promoting such opportunities or even providing them. Essentially, this is all about recognising how the workplace is changing—more entrepreneurs, more requirements for lifelong learning, more changes of career and the impact of technology. The commission believes this is an area in constant evolution.

No study or report on education can escape comment on resources. The commission faces this head on with a call for increased public expenditure. For higher education, tuition fees have dominated this debate but the one clear message is that if our world-class universities are to be sustained then they must have adequate resources. We make this point for the education sector as a whole.

Neil Carmichael is chair of the Commission on Sustainable Learning for Life, Work and a Changing Economy. The commission’s report will be published on 12 December.

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