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Skill set

Graeme Atherton argues that universities must stress their important role in addressing skills shortages

The causes of the UK’s present economic malaise are multiple and long-standing, but most seem to agree that skills shortages are one.

Neither of the main political parties at present has a set of convincing policies to address the problem—certainly in England—and higher education occupies an uneasy position in those solutions they do offer.

It is hard to imagine what would make a difference. This week’s King’s speech was thin on ideas, with only a passing reference to higher education, repeating the low-value degree mantra, while Labour’s lead in the polls is stultifying policy thinking as the party attempts to hold on to this lead for another year.

Yet whoever forms the next government will have to grapple with skills shortages across industries, as well as with the increasing number of older workers outside the labour force if they are to have any chance of delivering the growth required to guarantee a second term in office. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation estimates that the UK economy will be £39 billion worse off each year from 2024 if labour shortages are not addressed

And higher education needs to be part of the solution. Shortages in occupational areas that do not require a degree, such as catering and retail, may be the most visible. But research commissioned by the government itself suggests that demand for graduates and postgraduates will nearly double between 2015 and 2035, while demand for those with GCSEs only will contract by nearly a quarter.

Local leads

Despite this statis gripping education policy thinking in England, promising approaches are emerging in Wales. The Commission for Tertiary Education and Research is an attempt to bridge divides between different forms of post-compulsory education and engender the kind of cross-sector collaboration that can provide the courses that students and the economy require.

The concept of a tertiary system, in which different forms of post-compulsory education are brought together, is the norm across richer countries; the UK has been the outlier here. Universities may be wary of such an approach in England, but if they want to be taken seriously as a means of meeting skills needs—as opposed to skills being defined as what people get when they don’t go to university—then pushing for a tertiary system is in their own, and their students’, interests.

The 38 Local Skills Improvement Plans (LISPs) published in September are evidence of how this government sees universities and skills. Produced mainly by local chambers of commerce, they cover the whole of England and are meant to define skills needs in a local area. But they explicitly exclude higher-level skills and have no significant role for universities.

While, grudgingly, both major parties have accepted that devolution of power is required in England—and skills have been part of that via the Adult Education Budget—rather than dreaming of a life being left to their own devices, universities need to press to be part of a locally led approach to lifelong learning in a tertiary system.

Money matters

Along with structural reform, more funding for lifelong learning will be needed. There is little evidence that a loan-based system such as the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) will lead to an explosion in demand for learning from adults, since many are struggling with cost-of-living pressures and their aversion to borrowing money to fund learning is well known.

But the concept of an entitlement has big potential. If properly supported, shifting to a right to learn for adults—in the same way as education and training is a right to the age of 18—could change the way both students and providers think about education, especially those who left the system early.

If and when a future government realises that continual accumulation of student debt has a finite political life—as is now being seen in the US, where politicians are winning votes by looking to reduce debt—older learners may be the place to start a mixed model of student funding. Providing financial support for higher education courses taken after the age of 30 or 40, while those taken at under 25 remain primarily loan-funded, could have the genuine transformative impact that the LLE claims but is unlikely to deliver.

Focus on access

How to address access and participation has been slowly slipping down the agenda of both government and universities. Since it became a key policy concern in the early 2000s, outreach work through collaborative initiatives such as Aimhigher and its successors and Access and Participation Plans (APPs) have concentrated on younger learners. Take the present drive to get universities, through their APPs, to contribute to attainment-raising in schools.

This offers a real opportunity for the next government—especially a Labour one, since Labour was the original architect of the 21st-century widening participation agenda—to make older learners just as important as younger ones in this work. Any collaborative, regional widening access project, such as UniConnect, could include locally developed and owned higher education participation targets for older learners that would then inform the work of APPs.

The lack of realistic policies to enable universities to drive skills and lifelong learning is at odds with economic and social needs. But universities need to push themselves forward on this. Doing so could help establish their role in finding solutions to the UK’s economic challenges. It could also boost calls for more resources to support students and institutions—something that is desperately needed.

Graeme Atherton is head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up (CIELUP) and director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), University of West London.

A seminar convened by NEON—The Skills Revolution: Can lifelong learning save the UK economy?—will take place on 16 November at Ruskin College in Oxford.