As the General Election race heats up, it was great to see the focus on adult skills and further education among the first announcements to be made by both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party this week.
Given that this area is often an afterthought by policymakers and politicians, long may this renewed focus continue.
I recently worked on Labour’s Independent Commission, and I welcomed the much-needed focus on creating a lifelong learning movement. This is going to be one of the defining issues of our generation, and those to come.
To put it into context, the OECD estimates that, owing to the fourth industrial revolution and automation, 38 to 42 per cent of the UK population will need to completely retrain in the next 10 years to be able to stay employed. That is a staggering amount of training required to keep the UK workforce and our industries productive and competitive.
We must consider the ambitions and aspirations of our young and adult population alike: don’t they deserve the best we can provide and fund, as they traverse through countless stages in today’s working life?
In light of this, I welcome the Commission report’s focus on the need to create a long-term sustainable system, which recognises that most people don’t take a linear education pathway to employment. Lifelong learning for employability, from entry to the workforce through a career of potentially up to five decades, is important not just for the UK’s productivity, but also to improve social mobility.
We know from the Social Mobility Commission’s 2019 State of the Nation report that inequality is entrenched in Britain. Action must be taken to ensure that this does not remain the case, and that the world of work seeks to address rather than reinforce this problem. We need a better funded, fairer, easier-to-access and more coherent system going forward.
There is undoubtedly still more detail to be worked out, not least on how this system will be funded. I would like to see more on the breakdown in spending currently between high education, further education, and skills broadly. And I would also like more consideration of how to ensure that the funding can be flexible and reaches whichever area needs it most at any given time, rather than being assigned to a specific education sector.
It’s important to clarify too the role of government versus employer funding, with the latter being crucial if we are to ensure that we are creating the much-needed skills to futureproof the economy.
We now wait for the Conservative manifesto commitment on skills. I’m hoping to see further flexibility in the apprenticeship levy and more detail on the National Retraining Scheme.
It may be too much to hope that the Prime Minister will pick up the recommendations from Philip Augar’s post-18 review of education and funding, but I remain optimistic.
With the advancement of artifical intelligence and the rapid pace of an ever-evolving workplace, the skills gap is already having a huge impact on work practices. Against this backdrop, the need for a lifelong learning system is crucial.