The Independent Commission on the College of the Future, established in the spring of 2019, led by the UK’s National Statistician Sir Ian Diamond, is asking the fundamental question about what we need from our colleges across the four nations of the UK in the future. Over the last decade or so the UK has been going through very turbulent times – economically, socially, and politically - with substantial implications for how people live and work. Not only has this period been shaped by longer running global megatrends, and macro drivers of change, but it has been framed by significant economic events such as the financial crisis in 2008, Brexit and now the Covid-19 pandemic. Any assessment of the future role for colleges needs to start from the basis of understanding such changes to establish an effective future response. I have been delighted to join the wider members of the Commission in developing an ambitious vision for the future, consulting extensively with a number of stakeholders, and taking part in a wide range of different roundtables and workshop events across the country.
In totality, such developments across our economy clearly present opportunities but also significant threats to which we need to respond. Ongoing technological advances and innovations in ways of working, have combined with rapid rates of globalisation, increasing population growth and mobility, and climatic and environmental change, to name but a few, to drive dramatic changes to local economies, their industrial and labour market structures and the nature and composition of employment and local communities. This has led to varying patterns of industrial and employment growth and decline, with of course diverse implications for those communities. These developments will have left significant and lasting effects, with some of these being quite long-standing. Indeed, the OECD reports that covid-19, at the time of the lockdown had an impact 10 times greater than the crisis of 2008 (OECD 2020), which itself was substantial and this will undoubtedly have embedded deep-rooted problems of the past. But, these effects will not have been evenly felt across different parts of the UK. It is therefore very important Government, and its key public agencies such as colleges, alongside schools, universities and local authorities, work together with industry, trade unions and wider employee representatives in local areas in future to act in the best ways to drive better future economic performance. In particular, this places great importance on taking stock to understand challenges, now and in the years ahead, and to set out an appropriate vision nationally and locally for the skills and employment system about where and how to act. This is a chance to grasp new thinking and to encourage innovative solutions – past actions are unlikely to bring future success.
Economic events such as the financial crisis of 2008 have left an enduring mark on industry in a modern world. Productivity growth has been very slow, and has not recovered, unlike previous recessions, affecting a long tail of businesses of all sizes, sectors and localities in the UK - see analysis by the Productivity Leadership Group (2016) and Be the Business(2019). Ongoing pressures on productivity matter as they constrain public revenue, profits and the ability to pay workers decent wages. Whilst the nature and range of technological breakthroughs, in a future world, and associated moves to new more agile and flexible working, in principle offer many benefits to employees and employers alike, the rate of technology adoption amongst businesses in the UK in reality is not close to the leading European adopters. As such the UK is behind the European Union in how it uses technology whether it’s for purchasing, enterprise resource planning, marketing functions such as managing stakeholders online, and crucially people management. So, whilst there is not a consensus in what is driving the productivity puzzle, there is strong evidence pointing nevertheless to significant problems in the quality of management, driving technological investments across many UK businesses. As a result, the full potential of the technological revolution - Industry 4.0 - is not currently being realised. Whist covid-19 has accelerated technology adoption and use, and supported more flexible and remote working in recent months, there are still limits to where, and how quickly, this can be applied to some sectors and types of work.
The nature of management practices are also affecting the quality of people management. Indeed, only 1 in 10 businesses are adopting people-centred High Performance Working practices (DfE (2017). Employer Skills Survey) that support workplace innovation and performance improvements through a skilled and fully utilised workforce. Relatedly, at a time when there are fundamental changes in the nature of work, and employment and skills requirements, we have seen a fall in skills investment in the UK labour market, persistent skills shortages, many of which are in middle and high skilled roles and significant skills under-utilisation (ie around a third of employers), where individuals hold skills that are not demanded by businesses. Furthermore, around two fifths of individuals are not accessing training offered by employers on average in anyone year, and two fifths of the lowest socio-economic groups have not accessed training since leaving school. Furthermore, significant proportions of people are digitally-excluded being unable to: utilise digital technologies in the workplace; to access public services; and to participate fully in society whether to purchase goods and services or find support, information and/or advice. Consequently, we see a divided economy with increasing job polarisation. Whilst moves to more technologically driven, knowledge intensive ways of working are increasing high skilled jobs over time in the UK, we are also seeing a growth too in low skilled roles, especially in the service economy in areas such as retail, leisure and hospitality. Furthermore, without access to reskilling and upskilling, increasing proportions of people are stuck in low paid and low skilled work (around a fifth) as notions of jobs for life and career pathways are eroded. Covid-19 may in the short term have impacted many of these lower skilled more vulnerable areas of work, but it is as yet unclear what the longer term employment prospects will be. In addition, there are significant regional disparities in performance – indeed we have the most geographically unequal economy in the EU, with pronounced differences in economic outcomes between and within regions and these issues will need to be embraced moving forward.
The persistent labour market challenges, combined with the pandemic developments, have accelerated the need for local action. It is clear that colleges can and must be at the heart of providing a response. This recognises the fact that colleges are long standing and central anchor institutions at the heart of local communities, with a strong track record, and a lot of expertise, around supporting people and employers. As such colleges are well placed, working with other education institutions as well as wider local partners, to act as an essential service in every community. The independent commission has pulled together a coalition of experts from across education, business and trade unions, to develop an ambitious strategic vision for colleges backed by each of the UK Governments to enable this to happen. In particular, this points to vital objectives in three areas, not least to:
· Empower people, combining high-quality education and skills with access to facilities and resources for lifelong learning;
· Boost productivity, by convening, coordinating and providing high quality strategic support to employers, to drive business change, innovation, skills and future workforce planning, particularly from SMEs. This should be in close partnership with universities, local authorities, business chambers and others through the local community; and
· Strengthen every community’s sense of place and to support broader community action and a level playing field for all, so that everyone in the community is socially included. Colleges must have a central role to tackle social disadvantage, which will be an important step for engaging individuals on the ladder of opportunity, widening more active learning and stronger skills development, health and well-being.
The commission therefore believes that the full vision for colleges in the future will be central to driving a fairer, more sustainable and more prosperous society. Work continues to prepare the vision over the summer for publication in the autumn, alongside the spending review. But, in the meantime we can draw on leading voices from across the education system, who have demonstrated their support for the transformative role that colleges can play in future and are calling for greater collaboration across the education and skills system.
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