An ill-defined skills agenda is a high-risk sleepwalk into the future

The opportunity exists to reimagine the UK’s post-18 education system in a way that will improve society as well as the economy, says Susan Lea

May 10, 2021
A man sleepwalking on a roof
Source: iStock

The UK government’s renewed focus on lifelong learning is widely welcomed – and for good reason.

The UK is one of the most economically imbalanced European countries; only Romania and Poland have larger inter-regional income gaps. The UK also has greater income inequality than all but one European Union country, and it has the third-highest poverty gap among the 37 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Setting these challenges against the demands of the fourth industrial revolution brings the scale of the issues into sharp relief. Ways of working, being and relating are fundamentally changing, and people need to be able to adapt to keep up.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pivotal speech last September on skills and post-18 education reform set out an ambition to “tackle the fundamental problems in our economy of productivity and growth”, “deliver practical skills”, “help the country to invent new industries and contribute to humanity’s great challenges” and “make this country…richer and…fairer”.

I doubt that many would disagree with these aspirations. However, we should pay careful attention to the way in which “skills” are conceptualised. Failure to do so risks not appreciating how the agenda will be implemented – and what its consequences will be.

The dominant, often implicit, conception of skills takes a labour market perspective. In essence, there is a critical skills shortage, and the problem is one of supply. The accepted corollary is that the education system, post-18, does not deliver on upskilling individuals. Arguably, this is true. Successive government policies in England have seen the erosion of the part-time, mature market in higher education, for example. Furthermore, upskilling is constrained when only 60 per cent of 19-year-olds in the UK attain level 3 (A level or equivalent; Department for Education).

However, the skills agenda needs to be about far more than training and retraining units of labour to better match estimated future demand with supply. After all, we know that an exclusive focus on economic development has held back social progress. Thus, reimagining the post-18 education system should explicitly go hand-in-hand with the reimagining of a better society.

Learning new things is fundamentally existential; it impacts identity. We know, as educators, that learning brings confidence and pride, enhanced self-esteem and increased motivation – as well as improved competence. As such, educational reform must recognise learning as the pathway to creating the conditions that will maximise individual, economic, community and societal benefit, enabling people to cope with rapid change by solving problems together in diverse, creative workplaces.

The Lifelong Education Commission, launched in February by the thinktank ResPublica, offers the opportunity to shape this agenda. At the launch event, former universities minister Chris Skidmore spoke of the need for individuals to be the commissioners of their own learning. But while talk of empowerment sounds good, simply opening up access to skills learning – even within a coherent and interconnected post-18 system of provision – is not sufficient.

For decades, the UK’s further and higher education sectors have worked hard to address the inequalities of access and success in learning that hinder progress in social mobility. The reform agenda will need to acknowledge and address these issues across people’s entire lifespan if levelling-up is to become a reality and not mere rhetoric.

In short, we need a clear and honest articulation of what reforming the post-18 sector seeks to achieve and how it intends to do so. We cannot sleepwalk into the future: the risks are too great. The divide between rich and poor will continue to widen, the urgent action around climate change will not be taken, and productivity and growth will continue to lag.

The UK is at an inflection point. We can seize the opportunity – or not. But either way, there will be consequences. We have understood for centuries the power of education to transform individual lives and bring benefit to society. Universities, further education colleges and all those with influence need to harness that power now more than ever.

This is not about specific, transiently useful skills. It is about individual and social change.

Susan Lea is vice-chancellor of the University of Hull.

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Reader's comments (4)

We can all agree with that, however, the FE/HE sector has still not managed to overcome fundamental structural barriers for individuals to achieve this: flexible credit accumulation and module recognition from other institutions; something I have advocated all those years. It would be good if the University of Hull with its local/regional partnership network could take the lead.
The problem is a fundamental mismatch between FE and HE plus the fantasy that all institutions have equal standards. There is no point in having a credit transfer system when those transferring would not cope with the demands of the receiving institution. Moreover, STEM subjects build over the years and so must be studied in the correct order. There is also the issue of advances in technology that would make a degree of less use if it extends over too great a period. It is true that the fundamentals and many principles remain the same but it is essential to have knowledge of the state of the art and direction of travel.
Thank you Professor Lea for such a powerful argument for the transformative power of education. In such a rapidly changing world we must encourage life- long learning and explain why it does not always have to be a linear, highly stratified experience. To achieve the economic goals of our leaders, the aspirations of fairness and equity of our people and to safeguard our mental well-being we need to become a learning society.
“help the country to invent new industries and contribute to humanity’s great challenges.” Could the humanities break science's grip on a major avenue of wisdom--what it means that we evolved--and bring entire new industries into existence? More at, "New Meaning..." Pie in the sky? Or a major once-in-a-century challenge?