The Westminster government’s skills agenda is the narrowest of all the UK nations

As the Independent Commission publishes its vision for the College of the Future for Wales, Ellen Hazelkorn assesses how the Skills for Jobs white paper measures up against its counterparts in the devolved nations.

Ellen Hazelkorn is joint managing partner at BH Associates education consultants, and professor emeritus at the Technological University Dublin.

You wait for ages for the bus to come, and then several arrive at once. Last week the UK government produced a flurry of policy reports, including the Skills for Jobs white paper and interim response to the Augar review.

Of particular interest to the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, which has spanned all four nations of the UK, is the extent to which the direction of travel for skills policy in England reflects, draws on and builds on the trajectory across different nations within the UK.

And while there’s a welcome acknowledgement of the role of colleges in building an inclusive post-compulsory education system, and towards the lifelong learning imperative, the Westminster government’s vision is strikingly narrow compared to that of its devolved nation counterparts, and seems much less thoughtful about the size of the challenge.

Hyper-globalisation, the climate crisis and the technological revolution – plus changes accruing from Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic – are reshaping, and will continue to dramatically reshape, the world of work and how and where we live, right across the UK.

Demographic changes and active ageing mean lifelong learning is no longer optional, but essential, for economic, social and personal development. Failure to respond appropriately to these many challenges has arguably incited social and political discord across many countries alongside growing levels of distrust in public/civic institutions. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, a growing sense of inequality is undermining trust around the world.

Skills for jobs

The UK government’s levelling up strategy and Skills for Jobs white paper are a response to this changed landscape and how it might be addressed in England. Prioritising university participation has meant too many governments have given insufficient attention to the 50 per cent of people who do not attend university – allocating colleges and those who attend them far less funding and resources.

The white paper reflects the desire to “move on from previous underestimations of further and technical education and reinforce its pivotal role as a pathway to a bright future.” This approach is in line with governments elsewhere which are finally recognising the importance of further education/vocational education and training. Notably, the white paper also recognises that lifelong learning is no longer optional. The lifelong learning loan and lifetime skills guarantee are an important move in this direction although implementation is a number of years away – time for gremlins to play.

The white paper is a step forward but it is not a panacea. There is far too little emphasis on policy coordination, and much too much emphasis on free-marketism and competition-driven behaviour between colleges and universities, underpinned by the stick of accountability and government intervention. It talks simplistically about putting “employers at the heart of the system“, “employer-led standards” and getting rid of “low-value” courses.

A fundamental flaw is the assumption that if enough skills are supplied to employers then the scales can be tipped towards greater output, quality and sustainability. Instead, emphasis on skills should be matched by a growing understanding that people require a wider range of competences. Technical skills alone will not be sufficient in this rapidly changing world.

Missing also is due recognition to the powerful civic role that colleges (can) play as key anchor institutions within their wider local and regional ecosystem. The learner’s voice is also absent, as is proper interrogation of the possibilities for embedding much more of a social partnership approach to policy making, as the Independent Commission on the College of the Future had recommended in our UK-wide report. In these, and other respects, the white paper stands in stark contrast to what is being pursued elsewhere in the UK.

The college of the future

The Independent Commission on the College of the Future’s report on Wales illustrates the point. Our UK-wide report set out the vision for the role colleges can play for people, productivity and place, with 11 overarching recommendations for achieving this. Five years on from the review of the Welsh post-compulsory system, which I led, the Welsh government is moving ahead with putting in place the mechanisms for a coordinated system of further and higher education aligned with the values and vision of The Future Generations Act (2015). It recognises that a more sustainable, resilient, healthier, equal, globally responsible and cultural and economically prosperous Wales is linked to a “skilled and well-educated population” and a society which maximises people’s physical and mental well-being.

This ambition brings to life the UNESCO Global Education 2030 agenda which notes that “education is both a goal in itself and a means for attaining all the other sustainable development goals.” The College of the Future for Wales report calls for the current policy trajectory of collaboration in Wales to go further to ensure that the education and skills system keeps up what the future of Wales and the world will need. That’s why we’re calling for a holistic, coherent and equitable post-compulsory education and training system that has a single funding and regulatory body. To create the opportunity needed for anyone and everyone to benefit from a stronger system, we think this should be coupled with a statutory right to lifelong learning.

In Scotland, the Scottish Funding Council is looking to the future by undertaking a wide-ranging review of its tertiary system. It is examining the coherence and sustainability of further and higher education to ensure that it meets the current and future needs of learners and the Scottish economy and society more broadly. And in Northern Ireland, a recent in-country report from the OECD published June 2020 made the case for a much more holistic approach to skills policy.

The Republic of Ireland, where I live, has also been moving in this direction. The new strategy for the Further Education sector, Future FET: Transforming Learning, sets out an ambitious agenda of reform and performance improvement via a more strategic and integrated FET system. In this way, the FET sector will contribute to the creation of a “more collaborative and cohesive, developing tertiary education system for Ireland” – an strategy matched by the creation of a new Department for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science which brings together all the key policy actors.

Creating a more diverse and seamless post-secondary education system must be based on embracing both further and higher education and moving far beyond policies which promote predatory behaviour and unnecessary duplication. Fundamental are the principles of shared governance, collaboration, engagement and networking between educational institutions, enterprise, local and regional authorities and civic society as well as between further and higher education, and schools.

To best future-proof our citizens, a flexible and accessible education system is needed to offer different pathways and support systems to enable people to enhance their skills and knowledge throughout their lives and sustain themselves through planned and unplanned changes in life circumstances. There is much road still to travel.

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