The loom of Brexit has shattered Westminster complacency. Technical education is now being addressed nationally and, more importantly – in the context of a slow and reluctant devolution – regionally. We have seen the productivity plan (2015), the Sainsbury report and skills plan (2016) and the industrial strategy (2017), all of which confirm further education as being crucial to our economic future.
Last week, a national conference, but with a regional focus, suitably located in Leeds, addressed two issues in the productivity debate: how can employers cross the boundary into education and help create a generation of skilled and qualified employees? And how can we scrutinise local economic trends to anticipate and provide the expertise necessary to support burgeoning regional economies?
The conference, Building a robust technical education system through employer-provider partnerships, was supported by the Education and Training Foundation and hosted at Leeds City College; it drew upon research by the UCL Institute of Education into regional skills systems. Excellent technical education, the research demonstrates, is best delivered by lecturers who are expert both in their occupational profession and as teachers.
To retain credibility with students, such teachers will come from the area of employment within which the technical education sits. Such teachers also need to continually interact with their trade or profession in the same way as teachers in academia need to keep abreast of research.
What becomes clear is that effective technical and professional education can only be achieved through collaboration between employers and colleges. This is now accepted by policymakers and may be seen as a “settlement” in our quest for an effective skills system. UCL found that while employers are concerned about the time and cost of collaborative working, particularly for regional skills development at higher levels, there are real benefits to them in ensuring there is a suitably skilled workforce, raising their profile and standing in the community, and being located within a successful economic system.
Many employers rely upon a network of competence to run their businesses. By engaging with colleges, they can enhance local skillsets.
Patterns of employment, self-employment and networked employment are changing. In the context of increasingly complex career patterns and a proliferation of technical skills, Julie Gibbings, of the Education and Training Foundation, last week described a pilot of “master technicians”. One student commented: “I think if we were to have more master technicians, it would give me even more insight into different sectors within the IT industry.”
This change in the paradigm of employment was emphasised by Pauline Tambling, of Creative and Cultural Skills, who described a highly qualified workforce – many freelance – who support 65,000 creative businesses in an industry growing at five times the national average. It is an area, she says, where you “make a job, not take a job”. This could be a slogan for the future economy.
Regional economies differ: regional cultures support different types of employment. Getting networks and partnerships right is vital.
The models developed at UCL demonstrate that economic regeneration and growth are best developed from within. A region is successful if it can develop a “high-skills ecosystem”. FE is central to such a system. Highly skilled employment brings prosperity. So where, in our education system, as presently constructed, is the incentive to develop regionally relevant high-level skills?
In the words of Neil Fletcher, of UCL, there is “insufficiently articulated local labour-market demand and skills needs”. UK Plc could do better.
Paul Grainger is a lecturer at the Centre for Post-14 Education and Work at UCL
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