Mandy Crawford-Lee, Chief Executive | Associate Editor of Higher Education, Skills and Work-based Learning (the official journal of UVAC) shares her thoughts on the implications for Higher Level Technical Education during the UK's cost-of-living crisis.
Back in October 2022, I joined the voices of other skills sector leaders in writing about the worsening cost-of-living crisis and its effect on all aspects of post-16 training, education and skills in a Campaign for Learning publication called Learning in the Cold: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Post-16 Education and Skills .
There is no doubt that the uncertainty of rising costs and energy prices in the autumn has moved to greater certainty over the impact of food price inflation and unprecedented financial strain due to real-term pay cuts, and we are now faced with an impending recession and the likelihood of a winter of discontent led by industrial action across a number of sectors and professions.
While Westminster Government and His Majesty’s Treasury look to tackle the UK cost of living crisis with fiscal measures, from UVAC’s perspective as a representative body of the higher education sector, we maintain that tackling low productivity (alongside a focus on inclusion and social mobility) can be addressed by optimising the effectiveness of our skills system. This includes utilising higher and degree apprenticeships, Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) and a range of flexible programmes at levels 4 to 6 supported through the future Lifelong Loan/Learning Entitlement (LLE) and clear progression pathways from reformed qualifications at level 3.
Many explanations exist to explain the UK’s productivity gap, but lower skill levels and low investment in training is usually seen as a key determinant and explanatory factor. Although 80% of the UK’s workforce of 2030 is already in employment, the priority of the skills system is usually seen to be developing the skills of young people entering the economy. If UK productivity is to be improved, increasing the skills of the existing workforce needs also to be a public policy priority.
I reiterate here that broadly speaking, the higher an individual’s skill level, the higher the remuneration and while gaps and shortages remain at all skill levels, a higher skilled workforce (in terms of the level of occupational and professional skill) equates to a more productive, smarter working, workforce. Any particular focus on productivity should also consider approaches to widening access, inclusion and social mobility. Higher and Degree Apprenticeships and HTQs offer new routes to a better-paid skilled job and professional careers and are a good way of retaining talent in local areas. The skills system today has moved on from the skills sector’s historic obsession with level 2 occupations given that fewer and fewer occupations in the UK economy will be focused on that level of competency and skill. In comparison, there will be an increase in the number of jobs defining occupational competence at level 4 and above. While some level 2 programmes do provide good entry roles and ‘craft’ occupations are of significant value, much of this provision does not.
The mantra of the UK Government should be to up-skill rather than simply to re-skill and focus on the industries and jobs of the present and future and not of the past.
Remaining calls by some to prioritise and focus skills provision on lower levels in the context of any analysis of UK skills needs seem out of step with economic reality. Skills policy and provision should reflect the skills needs of the UK economy and the development of a high-skill and high-productivity economy as a considered response to the cost-of-living crisis for individuals of all ages and at all stages in their working life. Even the most casual glance at the skills challenges faced by the UK economy emphasises the need to have a collective approach, across both Further Education and Higher Education, that fully engages employers.
Our recommendation is for a higher technical growth plan with Government, working with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE), using the current ‘crisis of everyday living standards’ as the context. Individuals need to understand better about the economic and career benefits of particular skills programmes in relation to likely increases in salary, progression and job security. Employers, including SMEs, public sector as well as large private sector organisations, need greater information on the economic returns and social benefits of different types of skills provision and their potential impact on productivity and organisational performance. It is this approach, in my view, which will make the most difference.
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