We need a change in attitude to achieve the national skills strategy

Author: Lucy Stanfield, Strategy and External Affairs Lead at FutureLearn

The fourth industrial revolution will drive significant change to the way we live and work, thus fundamentally impacting not only what we need to learn but the ways in which we learn. This requires a fundamental attitude shift in how we perceive the value of different forms of education and our approach to lifelong learning.

UUK’s latest report Solving Future Skills Challenges calls for better collaboration between educators and employers, to take a flexible and informed approach to skills provision in the changing employment landscape. Universities have never only taught subject-matter; the very experience of attending university teaches invaluable skills in terms of work ethic, collaboration, self-motivation alongside technical and subject based skills. But the accelerating rate at which new technologies and their related disciplines are emerging requires education to be more adaptable and nimbler than ever before. In fact, the World Economic Forum found that ‘nearly 50% of the subject knowledge acquired during the first year of a four-year technical degree will be outdated by the time students graduate’. As such, it is clear that the standard degree model is not always the best option; the prolific rise of online courses and modular learning arguably being the solution in these instances. Yet whilst alternative methods of education provision are widespread in terms of availability they are not yet being taken up in the numbers required to plug the skills gap.

UUK goes on to argue that ‘the difference between academic and vocational qualifications…will become less relevant’ in a post- fourth industrial revolution world where the focus is on the set of skills demonstrated by an individual rather than the name of their qualification. However, there is still a premium placed on graduates of the traditional university system (a 3- or 4-year degree), with degree-holders earning an average of £10,000 more per year (DfE, 2018) and the top employers in the UK set to increase their graduate employment by 4% (Higher Fliers Research, 2018; UUK, 2018). Yet it is widely understood that having a degree does not always mean having all the necessary skills, especially in the new digital economy. If employers are to find employees with the skills they will need in the future, they must look beyond just graduates of the traditional system and see the value in alternative methods of provision. Those who can demonstrate relevant skills and an ability to continuously learn should have access to gainful employment, regardless of where or how they were educated.

In the ‘prove-it economy’ (The Atlantic, 2017), this requires an attitude shift across the sector; from what employers see as a valuable education, to where and how students consider undertaking their education, and in how the government promotes and funds education. We need to have parity of achievement. The apprenticeship levy was a good attempt at demonstrating support for alternative methods of education, but it has yet to prove successful. Rather, the shift in attitude needs to go right down to the school level; school-leavers should be shown the whole spectrum of education choices – the options are no longer limited to an academic or technical path or straight into a job. Stronger and more visible government support of these alternative pathways – including consideration of this in the post-18 review – would not only demonstrate to students that these are valuable pathways but encourage employers to look beyond the typical employee profile of a degree-holder.

Learning doesn’t end when one leaves formal education; that isn’t now and has never been true. We all learn continuously throughout life, yet it so often happens incidentally on the fringes of life or gets squeezed into evenings post-work. If we are to meet the unpredictable skills requirements of the future economy, we need a population who continuously adapts to and evolves with the changing skills requirements. Therefore, a further attitude shift is required in society’s approach to lifelong learning. It needs to be embedded as a normal part of life, with employers explicitly creating the space for their staff to learn new skills and individuals recognising the importance of taking a flexible and adaptable approach to their learning. The government’s continuous focus on the traditional education system will stifle society’s ability to approach lifelong learning creatively and embed it as a natural part of life and work. Education followed by employment no longer makes sense; work and learning should be one and the same. We must inspire a love of learning and a recognition that it is not a box-ticking exercise which ends at 18 or 21 but the foundation of success throughout life.

There are profound challenges we need to solve in order for the UK to succeed in the digital economy. It is not enough for skills to be explicitly called out in education; a cross-sector attitude shift is required to recognise the value of developing a whole-skills portfolio through alternative provision and embed lifelong learning as part of society. The government should consider this as part of its national skills strategy.

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