The government has been trailing new announcements on skills for recovery for a while now, though it’s not guaranteed that higher education provision will feature significantly in the strategy.
It is absolutely essential that such pathways deliver skills that are of value to individuals and contribute to the UK’s long term economic recovery.
Recently a report from the Centre for Social Justice, The Long Game, joined an extensive list of publications that have highlighted the UK skills gap and the need to support lifelong learning to close it. This important and welcome report illustrates the role universities can play in rebooting skills training for disadvantaged adults. A number of its recommendations relate to improving support for part-time higher education, including the reintroduction of maintenance grants for the poorest and most disadvantaged mature students.
While The Long Game takes into account the effect of the double-whammy of Brexit and new technologies such as artificial intelligence, it doesn’t consider fully the hat trick that the Covid-19 pandemic will score on the skills gap.
Of course, the greatest negative impact is likely to be on the most disadvantaged, who are the subject of the report. But the hat trick is also likely to have a very significant and lasting impact on millions more people who have been “OK” until now – the “squeezed middle”, and the “just about managings” – many of whom make up the electorate in the Red Wall of former Labour-voting constituencies.
There is little doubt that the economic support measures that the government introduced after we entered lockdown will have protected millions of jobs. But recent forecasts paint a very worrying picture for the future. So, part of the cure for coronavirus and, also the vaccine against future pandemics, must lie in a radical rethink of and boost to the economy.
Failure to launch
As long ago as 2006, Lord Leitch’s Review of Skills found that “historic failures in the education system” had contributed to the UK’s talent deficit. The world may have moved on from the 2020 targets that the Leitch Review set but if the economy is to recover and grow as we emerge from lockdown and continue to thrive in the future, it must adapt, and it is vital that government higher education policy and higher education institutions themselves, support it to do so, so that historic failures are not perpetuated.
While part of the solution lies in encouraging school-leavers to develop the skills they will need for the post-Brexit/coronavirus/AI jobs market, part also lies in upskilling and reskilling the existing workforce. However, the problem with UK government post-18 education policy is that for many years it has focused attention and resources on school leavers at the expense of mature learners. Although successive administrations have acknowledged the untapped potential of mature learners, none have committed the resource that is needed to reskill it.
Although many do so, it is a hard decision for someone to return to education when they have been working for a few years because it is likely that they already have financial commitments and they may well also have dependents.
Even if a mature learner continues to work while studying part-time, the decision to take on an additional 30 years of student loan repayments for someone who already has substantial debt, such as mortgage repayments, is not an easy one and so, it tends to be made, only by those who are truly committed to improving their lives.
Since the introduction of loans and higher tuition fees, participation in higher education from mature learners has more than halved. A large proportion of mature learners will also not be eligible for student loans either because they enrol to study short HE courses, or because of rules introduced in 2007 restricting access to student finance for equivalent and lower qualifications, even though the student may be studying an entirely different subject.
Bend and flex
However, it is not only higher education policy that needs to change to attract more mature learners. The sector itself should learn from Covid-19 that it really is able to provide more flexible learning opportunities, such as part-time provision and virtual classrooms, that are so important to mature learners because they enable them to fit their studies around commitments outside university life.
If the UK economy and the HE sector are to recover from the current pandemic and we are to future-proof ourselves, then both we and the government need to focus not only on providing educational opportunities for students who are in their final year of study at schools and colleges but also on enabling and supporting mature learners to reskill.
It is for this reason that I am asking the government to extend fee loans to learners studying qualifications that are lower or at an equivalent level to those they already have and for loans to be available to students who choose to study short HE courses, so that all part time higher education students can access support to cover tuition fees. I also strongly support The Long Game’s recommendation to provide grants to the poorest and most disadvantaged mature students. It is only by upskilling and reskilling the current workforce that we will ensure the UK economy makes a speedy recovery.