The answer to 2020’s major questions? Skills

Our skills systems need a major overhaul to support the economy amid the Covid crisis, says Professor Sir Ian Diamond
4th November 2020, 2:45pm
Sir Ian Diamond

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The answer to 2020’s major questions? Skills

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/answer-2020s-major-questions-skills
Coronavirus: How Colleges Can Help The Economy To Bounce Back

With the major questions of the day, from overcoming the current pandemic and our new global relationships, to the climate crisis and fourth industrial revolution, the answer so very often lies in one word: skills. But our skills systems across the UK need a major overhaul if we are going to respond and if we are going to thrive.

Recent research from CBI suggests that nine in 10 people will need new skills by 2030 to support the future economy and level up opportunities across the country. This means that people will need access to flexible adult and vocational education throughout their lives as the economy, the world of work and aspirations change.

Colleges should be central to these reforms. They are in the heart of every community, training and educating millions each day. But colleges are too often overlooked and undervalued. As a leader in universities for many years, this has long been obvious to me. I saw their important work, but also all too often, their neglect.


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Colleges have a key role to play in driving the ongoing training and reskilling we need - as genuine touchpoints for us all. But we need to do more to make it possible for everyone to learn throughout their lives, whatever route they choose to take. This requires ensuring people of all ages can access grants and loans to mean that they are able to get in and get on. It requires significant investment in the digital transformation of our education and skills system, as well as an expansion in shorter qualifications and micro-credentials. And it means changing the way that colleges operate and developing a genuine 365-day-a-year service.  

But investing in skills is only one side of the issue - we also need to ensure that there are quality jobs available for people. Research from the Resolution Foundation last week found that just one in three young people who have lost their jobs have been able to find new work. 

Coronavirus: Closer links between colleges and employers

Colleges have a key role here, too - in backing business and driving innovation, as well as addressing skills gaps. And this means developing a new deeper, strategic partnership between colleges and employers.

This must include establishing a unique service for employers at their local colleges for training and upskilling future and current employees and innovation support through - supporting business change and recovery, and the need to move to green technologies.

This is about scaling up the best of what already exists. Recent research from the Gatsby Foundation and Association of Colleges has found, for example, that the overwhelming number of colleges in England have deep relationships with employers - the average college works with more than 750 local employers - but they stand ready to do much more, with adequate funding and staff capacity.

And the role of colleges in strategic business support is most developed in Northern Ireland - where this is an explicit, funded element of the college remit. This saw Belfast Met win a Queen's Anniversary Award last year for the role it plays in supporting business development in cybersecurity - driving regional growth and a burgeoning of quality jobs for the Belfast region.

Crucially, the future of colleges must involve colleges working more closely with others - including universities, local authorities and business chambers - ensuring that we have much better joined-up support. That is why we need a duty on all providers to align strategically in order to deliver more and better for employers.

Colleges can and must be at the heart of this

We set out these reforms last week in the final UK-wide report of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, which I proudly chair. The potential is enormous. If we achieve this vision, employers will see their local colleges as a key source of strategic support - as a place they turn to as they seek to innovate and develop.

People of all ages will see their local college as a place of learning and support right throughout their lives, and as a central part of their community. People working in colleges will recommend it as a place to work - where remuneration is fair, and development opportunities are exciting. Parents and guardians will aspire for their children to attend college as an equally prestigious route as university.

The ongoing pandemic demands decisive action, as we drive a skills-led recovery within each of the four nations. Colleges can and must be at the heart of this - and our recommendations set out a pathway for acting on that, now.

Professor Sir Ian Diamond is the chair of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future 

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