The UK’s skills gap could be tackled by creating sector specialist ‘employer hubs’ at local colleges and by giving every person a statutory right to lifelong learning, a group of experts looking at the role colleges can play in addressing skills needs has recommended.
The Independent Commission on the College of the Future, which was set up to establish what the UK needs from colleges from 2030 onwards, noted that a skills-led recovery would be vital as the UK attempted to rebuild “healthy, connected and cohesive” communities. This meant that many of its recommendations needed to be acted upon now.
Sir Ian Diamond, chair of the Commisison and the UK’s national statistician, said: “Colleges are vital yet under-utilised institutions that offer the transformational learning and support that our four nations need now, more than ever, if we are to face the long-term impacts of Covid-19 and to drive a sustainable, inclusive economy.
“We must all commit to a bold ambition on skills. Lifelong learning is the only way to ensure people and businesses will survive the recession and thrive in the future. With the right support, colleges can deliver on this urgent need for every community.”
The commission’s final report stated that colleges should develop a “unique service” for local employers, helping them to train and upskill future and current employees and support innovation. This should include the development of sector-specialist “employer hubs”.
“Employer hubs will be sector or skills focused, and will convene and coordinate strategic support for employers and innovation and skills,” the report said. “This will involve working collectively across the college education and skills system, with economic/employment agencies and employer networks to identify and meet the skills and productivity needs of the wider economy. Employer hubs will reflect both existing specialisms across the college network, and the needs and priorities of employers, the workforce and the community.”
Colleges should also work with employer groups in the design of the curriculum and reach out to smaller businesses in their communities to determine what they need from the education system.
“Major employers find it easier to engage, so colleges will need to reach out to SMEs and work closely with employer representative bodies, with significant scope for strengthening partnerships with sectoral networks too at national, regional and local levels,” the report added.
CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese, also a member of the Commission, said: “As we face a more changeable future, better support for organisations and individuals to upskill and reskill is of critical economic and societal importance. Colleges should play a major part in this with their natural community connection, focus on vocational and employability skills, and through enabling lifelong learning. Building stronger partnerships with employers and with proper funding, now is the time to reinvigorate this sector for all our futures.”
People should also be given a statutory right to upskill and retrain throughout their lives, by granting them access to affordable and relevant learning opportunities.
This should include free access to learning up to Level 3 (Level 6 in Scotland), which the Commission said was the “minimum platform which enables people to secure good quality jobs in a modern economy”.
The report stated: “Covid-19 has had a major impact on a range of sectors, causing large-scale dislocation and accelerating radical wider long term changes taking place in the labour market. People affected need targeted investment on top of the lifetime learning entitlement to upskill, retrain and reskill to help them find work in higher demand priority sectors. This offer should supplement any previous qualifications an individual has to help them maintain relevant skills, including in strategic priority sectors such as the green economy.”
Other recommendations made in the Commission’s final report included:
- The provision of grants and loans to allow people to “live well” while studying, which it believes would bring down barriers many adults face to further training – particularly those on low incomes, in precarious employment, and for those who require retraining due to Covid-19 or labour market changes
- Overhauling the post-16 education and skills system in each UK nation, with a 10-year strategy for how colleges will deliver what each nation’s economy and society needs
- Ensuring that college leaders are representative of the communities they serve. Data on characteristic such as race, gender, sexuality and disability should be collected so gaps in representation can be identified and recruitment campaigns can be targeted at underrepresented groups.