An ill-defined skills agenda is a high-risk sleepwalk into the future


The UK government’s renewed focus on lifelong learning is widely welcomed – and for good reason.

The UK is one of the most economically imbalanced European countries; only Romania and Poland have larger inter-regional income gaps. The UK also has greater income inequality than all but one European Union country, and it has the third-highest poverty gap among the 37 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Setting these challenges against the demands of the fourth industrial revolution brings the scale of the issues into sharp relief. Ways of working, being and relating are fundamentally changing, and people need to be able to adapt to keep up.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pivotal speech last September on skills and post-18 education reform set out an ambition to “tackle the fundamental problems in our economy of productivity and growth”, “deliver practical skills”, “help the country to invent new industries and contribute to humanity’s great challenges” and “make this country…richer and…fairer”.

I doubt that many would disagree with these aspirations. However, we should pay careful attention to the way in which “skills” are conceptualised. Failure to do so risks not appreciating how the agenda will be implemented – and what its consequences will be.

The dominant, often implicit, conception of skills takes a labour market perspective. In essence, there is a critical skills shortage, and the problem is one of supply. The accepted corollary is that the education system, post-18, does not deliver on upskilling individuals. Arguably, this is true. Successive government policies in England have seen the erosion of the part-time, mature market in higher education, for example. Furthermore, upskilling is constrained when only 60 per cent of 19-year-olds in the UK attain level 3 (A level or equivalent; Department for Education).

However, the skills agenda needs to be about far more than training and retraining units of labour to better match estimated future demand with supply. After all, we know that an exclusive focus on economic development has held back social progress. Thus, reimagining the post-18 education system should explicitly go hand-in-hand with the reimagining of a better society.

Learning new things is fundamentally existential; it impacts identity. We know, as educators, that learning brings confidence and pride, enhanced self-esteem and increased motivation – as well as improved competence. As such, educational reform must recognise learning as the pathway to creating the conditions that will maximise individual, economic, community and societal benefit, enabling people to cope with rapid change by solving problems together in diverse, creative workplaces.

The Lifelong Education Commission, launched in February by the thinktank ResPublica, offers the opportunity to shape this agenda. At the launch event, former universities minister Chris Skidmore spoke of the need for individuals to be the commissioners of their own learning. But while talk of empowerment sounds good, simply opening up access to skills learning – even within a coherent and interconnected post-18 system of provision – is not sufficient.

For decades, the UK’s further and higher education sectors have worked hard to address the inequalities of access and success in learning that hinder progress in social mobility. The reform agenda will need to acknowledge and address these issues across people’s entire lifespan if levelling-up is to become a reality and not mere rhetoric.

In short, we need a clear and honest articulation of what reforming the post-18 sector seeks to achieve and how it intends to do so. We cannot sleepwalk into the future: the risks are too great. The divide between rich and poor will continue to widen, the urgent action around climate change will not be taken, and productivity and growth will continue to lag.

The UK is at an inflection point. We can seize the opportunity – or not. But either way, there will be consequences. We have understood for centuries the power of education to transform individual lives and bring benefit to society. Universities, further education colleges and all those with influence need to harness that power now more than ever.

This is not about specific, transiently useful skills. It is about individual and social change.

Author Bio: Susan Lea is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hull.