Today, the Prime Minister further detailed plans to transform the UK training and skills system, building on the £2.5bn National Skills Fund that was announced by the Chancellor in the Spring 2020 Budget.
He made clear the scale of the challenge, noting that “as old types of employment fall away, new opportunities are opening up with dizzying speed – vast new sectors in which this country already leads or can lead the world.”
Central to his plan to tackle this was the welcome announcement of a Lifetime Skills Guarantee. Students at FE colleges will be able to take out loans in the same way as university students do now. Government is committing to offer four years of post-18 education, which can be used for Higher and/or Further Education courses throughout their working life. In other words, these changes will make the process for getting a student loan for certain Further Education courses the same as it is to do a three-year degree at a university.
This model contrasts with the approach used to encourage lifelong learning in other countries, such as Singapore, where workers are allocated a funding pot which they can spend flexibly on training and learning over their careers, rather than a defined period of free training. Our working lives are growing longer, and it remains to be seen whether the new UK approach will offer sufficient flexibility for those who change careers or need short courses to upskill.
A 2019 Social Mobility Commission report into the adult skills gap in the UK found that the poorest adults with the lowest qualifications are the least likely to access training, despite being the group who would benefit most, and that graduates are over three times more likely to participate in training than those with no qualifications. Therefore, the Prime Minister’s commitment today to fund technical courses for adults who left school without A-Levels or equivalent, is an important step in the right direction. However, with the furlough scheme about to end, it’s unfortunate that these courses will not be available before April 2021.
Government has also announced that the free online Skills Toolkit, which was launched earlier this year to help people train in digital and numeracy skills, is being expanded to include 62 additional courses. Additionally, more funding for SMEs taking on apprentices was announced, alongside greater flexibility in how their training is structured, via new “portable” apprenticeship routes that will allow apprentices to continue their training should they transfer to a different employer.
Furthermore, digital skills boot camps are to be expanded in West Yorkshire, south-west England, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire to cover sectors like construction and engineering, replicating “highly successful” pilots in Manchester and Birmingham.
While this goes some of the way in recognising the immediacy of the need to reskill, other initiatives such as the expansion of the National Retraining Programme should be considered. This programme could be brought forward and streamlined through the pooling of individual initiatives such as the Adult Education Budget, National Skills Fund and National Retraining Scheme. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation have estimated that this could create a combined budget of £7 billion over the next three years to be focused on supporting people to transition into new jobs and targeted specifically at low paid workers. The Treasury should also bring forward the Shared Prosperity Fund to provide communities with additional resource to support local people to develop their skills and re-enter the labour market.
Johnson said today that "it is time for change, and for radical change” and these announcements do mark welcome recognition of the need to invest in lifelong learning and tackle systemic, long-term barriers to accessing training for workers who want to reskill.
But with the jobs market on the cusp of a deep crisis when the furlough scheme ends, the extent to which the Skills Guarantee can truly present a meaningful shift in direction for adult education will hinge on how and where provision is targeted over the months ahead.
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