Universities and colleges must pool together to boost digital skills

Panel on tertiary education agrees the barriers are too high for mature learners who want to take up digital and technical training

powering digital skills

Universities and further education (FE) colleges should not be pitted against each other for funding or student places if there is any hope for closing the UK's widening digital skills gap.

The tertiary education sector, which comprises FE colleges and higher education (HE) institutions like universities, should present a more "united front" when working with businesses to raise the number of higher-skilled workers.

This is according to the Confederation of British Industry's (CBI) senior policy advisor Harry Anderson speaking on a panel discussion at an event hosted by the Westminster Higher Education Forum.

Chaired by Lord David Blunkett and also featuring the University of Bedfordshire vice chancellor Bill Rammell and Waltham Forest College principal and chief executive Joy Kettle, the panel was discussing the state of play for education in the context of a changing labour market.

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"We do need to recognise that employment and technology are changing the way we work. So it might not be robots taking all our jobs immediately, but the nature of jobs is changing," said the CBI's Harry Anderson.

He explained the number of jobs that do not require qualifications has "fallen off a cliff" whereas those that were not deemed graduate-level jobs are now more demanding in their entry requirements. This is down to a host of factors like new industrial technologies and complex legislation.

"What would perhaps be most useful from a business perspective would be the tertiary education sector presenting a more united front in this," he continued.

"Businesses value that diversity in the tertiary education sector because it reflects and responds to the diversity of businesses. We have a lot of corporate members, we have a lot of SMBs located around the country, they will have different relationships with different educational institutions - whether that's universities in big cities or their local FE [academy] down the road."

Waltham Forest College's Joy Kettle reflected this in her experiences, suggesting one of the factors could be a bottlenecking of talent at A-level or other 'level three' pathways. She told the audience that over a third of young learners do not progress from 'level two' to 'level three', and a further fifth of students don't progress to 'level four' or above. Kettle also suggested reasons there may be conflict brewing between different segments of the tertiary education sector, suggesting it's down to money, and student places.

"There have been some concerns that HE is treading into FE territory, in terms of level four and five provision, in terms of apprenticeships, as a way of making up for lost revenue from tuition fees and the lack of student numbers.

"Something else that FE colleagues are aware of is competition around unconditional offers to students, and also year zero provision."

Meanwhile, much of the debate around higher education provision has generally centred around the academic route versus the vocational route, with varying voices each touting the benefits of the different paths. But this, the panel agreed, was counterintuitive to the aim of both training young people skilling up the workforce, given that each path to education has its own merits. The T-level, which is set to roll out in 2020, could be one way to eliminate this notion of competition between academic and vocational training, the panel agreed.

But mature workers and adults with more established careers too, have a major role to play in plugging the digital skills gap. The environment for this cohort, however, is far less welcoming than it can be for school leavers, given that mature students face increased financial and social barriers.

"The bigger challenge is navigating this changing landscape, and is more around [the fact that] opportunities to retrain and to study are not there for more mature students anyway," Anderson continued. "That primarily relates to the funding system that we have that doesn't really enable provision at that market."

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Additionally, he continued, mature students have specific challenges they need to be able to overcome, like debt aversion and having to take time out of the workforce to retrain.

Kettle also highlighted that lack of sufficient expertise at HE and FE institutions and suggested the level of provision does not meet the current demand for digital skills among mature learners.

"It's about our staff and the skills that our staff have. It's about us investing in the technology that we need for the future and making sure that we actually have the skills," she said.

"I think there's a lot to say for employers and colleges and universities working together, where, in the workplace, there will be those skills, really strong technical skills, and sharing.

"Because we can't compete in terms of salary with the industry to bring people in on a full-time basis, but we can certainly work together to make sure that mature students and other students have those sort of skills."

The government is awaiting the findings of a review on post-18 education, dubbed the Augar review, which should inform future policy on higher education in general, as well as measures to address the digital skills gap. 

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