Published:

Dr Marius S. Ostrowski is Senior Public Policy Researcher at ResPublica, leading policy research and development for the Lifelong Education Commission.

Can the UK study its way into a future-proof economy? That is the question that the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which is due to enter Report stage on February 21, seeks to answer. We can predict a few possible answers to this straight off the bat.

‘Unequivocally yes’ has been the view of the Government, for example, which has pitched the Bill as a decisive step towards more local, flexible, and better-quality qualifications. ‘Yes, but not like this’ has been the response of its parliamentary critics, who have already subjected the Bill to a litany of critiques and amendments.

Perhaps the most accurate answer to this question, however, is a cautious yet optimistic one: ‘yes, but only if we take this further’.

This is because the Skills Bill, despite some genuinely welcome areas of reform, misses several key opportunities for effectively transforming post-16 learning. Happily, there are a few avenues to address these shortfalls and create a skills system that is genuinely future-proof.

Firstly, the Government should follow the logic of its flagship T-levels policy, and introduce fully integrated academic and vocational skills credentials from higher apprenticeships up to PhDs, with students taking ‘on-the-job’ and classroom-based learning modules that would be treated as part of a single integrated course.

Similar to the ‘DIY’ approach of the US system, students should be allowed to construct their own bespoke qualifications using both academic and vocational modules as building blocks.

Further, it should be made far easier for learners to transfer these credits between institutions, both within and across academic, integrated, and vocational education ‘streams’. Without this, learners are all-too-often placed in a situation of wasting their time and funding on courses that are mutually incompatible, incompletely accredited, or even not universally recognised.

A second change should be to give employers a greater financial and logistical stake in offering reskilling programmes. Ahead of the Bill’s third Commons reading, an amendment has been tabled by Peter Aldous MP that seeks to ensure that adult learners remain eligible for Universal Credit if they pursue qualifications designed to help them secure a job.

This is no doubt a valuable contribution, but we should be wary of replacing the logic of workfare with that of skillfare. The danger here is that UC recipients could be pushed onto skills courses of dubious value, just so they can ‘earn’ their welfare benefits.

Instead, we should switch the focus from (would-be) employees to employers. Greater onus should be placed on businesses to include retraining support in redundancy settlements with their (soon to be ex-) workers.

The Government should also carve out a far broader role in such ‘outplacement’ support for existing providers of in-work training and development such as ‘onboarding’, orientation, management and software training courses, etc. This would enable a smoother transition from role to role for employees, and perhaps reduce the need for re-jigged redundancy settlements in the first place.

A third change to the Skills Bill relates to the need to clarify the balance between local and national skills improvement frameworks in British education.

Given huge regional variations in sectoral specialisation, growth, and decline, lifetime learning strategies are an obvious candidate for inclusion in devolution deals. Indeed, there have already been calls to strengthen the role of mayoral combined authorities and local further and higher education during the Bill’s examination in Parliament.

In order to avoid needless divisions between metropolitan and county authorities, the Government should add a significant skills improvement dimension to ‘county deals’ – such as those proposed for Nottinghamshire and Lancashire.

This must include giving local authorities decisive control over the work of Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs), including – as per Labour MP Kathryn Smyth’s suggestion – the power to choose which employer representative bodies they want to work with.

A final change to the Bill would be for the Government to commit to an annual review of skills levels in England and Wales. This review should offer a detailed overview of the economic effects of a fully-integrated hybrid course, along with data on the up-take of said qualifications. In addition, it should cover all qualifications from entry level up to Level 8, with details on the size, composition, and results of each cohort.

Furnishing this with information on the status of learners after finishing their course would create a means for measuring the concrete effectiveness of each course in furnishing learners with useful and marketable new skills.

Overall, these four recommendations boil down to the need to put local authorities in charge of skills improvement by granting them the power to make adult education work for local needs. including the scope to directly fund individual courses they want to incentivise as part of their regional development strategies.

The Government must give local authorities the logistical capacity and the autonomy to make sophisticated forecasts about their own economic future, and plan their reskilling provisions accordingly. This would go a long way towards addressing what is missing from Skills Bill – creating a robust UK skills system to match the pressures of a changing economy, while also providing individuals with the means to engage in continuous self-development throughout their lives.