Broadly, LLE encourages people to develop skills throughout their working life by providing four years’ worth of tertiary education funding, available for courses in a range of shapes and sizes. It aims to bolster adult education by offering retraining at higher levels to fill national skills gaps.
However, the details of the policy suggest it is unlikely to meet its ambitions due to potentially limited take-up. As the Bill makes its way through parliament, however, there’s an opportunity for policymakers to seek clarification and gain answers.
The skills gap & the lack of support for adult education
A key aim of the policy is to address the mismatch between the supply of skills and demand from industry. In 2019, skills shortage vacancies in the UK amounted to 214,000 (an increase of just under 3 per cent from 2017), of which 199,000 were in England, accounting for roughly 22 per cent of total vacancies. Over a third of vacancies in professional occupations were due to skills shortages, a figure second only to skilled trade occupations (where they are over 47 per cent). Despite these figures, the amount of training provided to employees has diminished over time and correlates with a decrease in government funding for adult further education, which fell by 38 per cent between 2010-11 and 2020-21.
The LLE impact analysis released by DfE suggests flexible learning may partially address this issue and improve take-up of adult education at higher levels. By allowing learners to undertake modular study, full level 4 to 6 qualifications, and removing Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) restrictions (thereby allowing learners to study at or below a level at which they’re already qualified), learners have the opportunity to engage in study suiting the demands of the broader economy.
While the government’s response to the consultation notes that it will provide an information, advice, and guidance (IAG) section in the learner’s personal account – which would include information on how to select the right course – it remains unclear whether this will include information on which skills and careers are in high demand. In addition to calls by others to strengthen the IAG section, it is vital that learners have information about the skills required in emerging industries, and are not limited to their pre-existing professional pathways, to ensure that skills are transformed in step with industry requirements.
In addition to the content, the delivery of the information should be expanded beyond a digital medium for learners that are less digitally engaged. Though DfE has noted the importance of offering information via other channels, the policy lacks detail on other methods for dissemination. As noted by respondents to the consultation, the success of the policy hinges on the decisions that learners make with the information made available to them and the relative ease with which the information can be accessed. Much more detail on the IAG section of the personal account is required.
On a positive note, the government has already conducted analyses of the jobs and skills that are most in demand, as well as providing a local skills dashboard. It’s now just a matter of integrating these resources into the LLE.
So, who’s left out?
Short answer: many virtual learners.
The equality analysis released by DfE indicates those groups at greater risk of not participating in higher education would benefit most from the barriers lowered by LLE. Yet, the policy does not include maintenance support more generally, or targeted grants for learners with disabilities or childcare duties for virtually delivered courses. This exemption counteracts previous research suggesting that an increase in maintenance support increases participation. Even more crucial is the fact that virtual learning was popular amongst adults even before the pandemic: of the 42 per cent who engaged in distance learning in 2016, 61 per cent participated through an online course. The exclusion of maintenance support and targeted grants for virtual courses is, therefore, particularly shocking after a pandemic which saw the virtual environment cemented as an important learning modality.
With these limitations in mind, the plan for filling skills gaps appears insufficient at best, and exclusionary at worst. Indeed, the government’s own Social Mobility Commission has called for more flexibility in spending to support virtual learning more broadly. LLE’s exclusion of this compounds pre-existing barriers faced by learners who are “female, older, pregnant or on maternity leave, have a known disability, or are from ethnic minority backgrounds,” and would be encouraged to take up reskilling with adequate support.
Creating a system with so many barriers not only hinders socioeconomic mobility, but also prohibits the national economy from wielding the vast, untapped potential of the labour market. With changes in the job market after COVID-19, government must provide skills guidance and prioritise expanding learning opportunities, especially through digital learning, such that workers are able to reskill to meet shifting demands within upcoming industries.
If the motivation is to upskill and increase national productivity, serious revision of the LLE is required