Developing flexible routes to higher skills

In recent years we have seen encouraging progress towards creating a financially sustainable university sector that is open to everyone, regardless of background.

This expansion has meant more young people having access to the life-changing potential of a university education and the advantages that come with learning new skills and developing new ideas. The rapid growth in degree apprenticeships from a standing start is particularly encouraging.

However, the immense success and heritage of the UK’s world-class university sector mustn’t breed complacency. Especially when it comes to the catastrophic decline in part-time students by a third (37%) between 2010-11 and 2016-17. Reversing this trend needs to rise up the government’s agenda and form a significant part of the post-18 review findings, now expected early next year.

To guide this discussion, and help develop solutions, over the last few months, the CBI has worked with Universities UK to engage with universities, business, and the wider education sector.

The world of work is changing

One message has come through loud and clear. The decline in part-time students matters not only to individuals but is of critical importance to the UK’s future economic prosperity.

The rapidly changing world of work means action is needed now. Technological advances are creating new jobs at a higher level and changing the requirements of existing jobs – event if the job title itself remains unchanged. Many world-leading companies such as Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon, Alibaba, Twitter, or Uber didn’t even exist 20 years ago.

According to the CBI’s latest education and skills survey, 79% of businesses expect to grow their number of higher-skilled employees, but 66% are not confident there will be enough people available in the future with the necessary skills to fill those high-skilled jobs.

Meeting the needs of the economy, therefore, rests on widening access to higher-level education and promoting routes that appeal to people for whom a traditional, three-year university degree may not be the best option.

For a whole range of reasons – from family to work commitments, caring responsibilities and many more – if flexible study isn’t accessible then many people don’t study at all.

This means we lose out on the potential of higher productivity and the chance to help boost wages, improve jobs, and raise standards of living for people across the UK. The economic and social costs are just too high.

What needs to be done

So, what needs to happen to create more flexible routes, and reverse the marked drop in part-time and mature students?

We have spoken to many of our trade association and business members to ask about the barriers they face when looking to upskill and retrain workers, and what role universities can play in this.

These conversations have highlighted several barriers. Not least the rigidity of the apprenticeship levy which means that more flexible types of learning, such as part-time degrees, are often off the table for employers looking to support their workforce to develop higher skills.

That is why, together with Universities UK, we have developed a list of recommendations for the government’s post-18 review which centre on:

  • Reforming the apprenticeship levy into a more flexible skills levy so that it can cover a wider range of training.
  • Developing shorter and more flexible provision to enable students to move between work and study across their lifetimes.
  • Supporting collaboration between employers, higher and further education, to help learners progress into provision which falls between A levels and a university degree (what is often referred to as level 4 and 5 provision).

Building on existing partnerships between universities and business will be essential in getting this right.

We know that universities already work extensively with employers to ensure they are helping to boost the skills of our current and future workforce, and this work has highlighted some excellent examples of universities continuing to innovate and offer more flexible provision.

These recommendations are about shifting this up a gear.

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