Britain after Brexit: The challenge for FE and skills
These are interesting, not to say unprecedented, times for further education and skills. Even for a sector used to disruption and uncertainty, the dizzying combination of ongoing policy turbulence, fundamental technological and demographic change and, of course, Brexit, is likely to prove challenging. The prognosis is not all bad, however, and there are real opportunities for the sector in the emerging post-Brexit world, if we are bold enough and bright enough to seize them.
Despite dwindling funding and the recurring struggle of explaining just what it is we do to ministers and civil servants, most of whom have trodden the gilded path from public school to Oxbridge, it is increasingly well understood that the vision of the UK as a high-skills, high-wage economy, with levels of productivity comparable to France and Germany, can only be achieved with a flourishing and well-funded FE and skills sector. And with immigration from Europe likely to fall dramatically, that can only be delivered through greater investment in our homegrown talent. Whatever else Brexit promises, it is likely to mean an expanded role for skills training and further education.
This point was made persuasively in the Social Market Foundation’s excellent new report, Rising to the challenge: The Further Education and skills sector over the next decade, which was sponsored by FETL. The report looks ahead 10 years to the key competitive challenges the sector is likely to face, including: increased competition from schools and universities, as school budgets dwindle and EU student number dry up; a more prominent role for employers in skills provision; and the emergence of new educational technologies, which could revolutionize the way in which education and training is provided and could have significant potential benefits for providers able to exploit them fully.
To this raft of challenges we might add demographic change – some 90 per cent of the 2025 workforce have already left education – and the changing face of work, which will see more disruption to job patterns, greater need for retraining and a continuing pattern of precarity for the self-employed, who remain among those groups of workers least likely to engage in training.
As the SMF’s director James Kirkup argued in his Telegraph piece last week, ‘an ageing population and the ever-rising demands of the modern labour market will make lifelong learning a necessity’ with FE and skills offering many older workers ‘the best way to combine training and earning’. Finding new ways to engage the existing workforce in training, following a decade of cuts which have seen much of the infrastructure of adult learning dismantled, is a major challenge for government and the sector. Better use of new educational technologies will be crucial in this.
In this brave new world of new competitive threats, huge, potentially transformational opportunities and a massively increased demand for homegrown skills, the report envisages a sector with a clear mission as a ‘champion of social mobility’, characterized by ‘chains’ of providers, often working under a single brand, and using virtual and distance learning technologies to ensure that ‘place’ matters far less to students’ education and training options than it used to.
The growing demand for lifelong learning and the changing face of work will also oblige providers to think about how they offer learning, to whom and in what form. We need a national conversation about the skills the country needs and we need to acknowledge the wrongheadedness of policy interventions which have seen lifelong learning opportunities shrink and the curriculum narrow. These are trends that should be reversed.
There are, however, reasons to be cheerful about the sector’s capacity to respond to this challenge. It hardly needs saying that the sector is resilient and adaptive, used to riding out change and making much of little in a climate of diminishing resources. But we are also adept in developing partnerships, with schools, employers and other providers. The sector’s close relationship with employers – something few universities understand or are equipped for – puts us in a good place to exploit the opportunities that lie ahead. Many leaders will also recognise the description of the sector as an ‘engine of social mobility’. For decades, the sector has been the main provider of second-, third- and fourth-chance education, offering a ladder out of poverty to those who found school was not for them. For many communities, this is already seen as the sector’s crucial and distinctive role.
It is well documented that Britain continues to lag behind its competitor countries when it comes to training people in the higher-level technical skills needed to improve productivity and to succeed in global markets. We have tended to rely on immigration, mostly from Europe, to supply the skills the economy needs. This will soon be a thing of the past.
The OECD’s just-published Skills Outlook 2017 report demonstrates the crucial role investment in people’s skills plays in supporting national productivity and creating new opportunities for jobs and innovation. The FE and skills sector is in a good position to provide both the high-level skills needed to solve the UK’s long-standing productivity ‘puzzle’ and the mixture of strong cognitive, management and communication, and learning skills our young people and adults need to survive and thrive in this new world.
For that to happen, however, we need long-tem political commitment from government, backed, as the report says, by security of income, and an understanding of what the sector can contribute. If that is forthcoming, I believe the sector will rise to the challenge and realise its potential as a true ‘engine of social mobility’