Learning and Skills Network
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Government must adopt 'strategic role' in skills

LSN have claimed that the UK economy could falter as a result of the lack of new skills needed to meet demand in growth sectors.

No-one would deny that the ability of the UK's education system to meet demand for skills in new technological or occupational areas is vital for the country. This makes the recent research report by LSN's think-tank, the 'Centre for Innovation in Learning', very worrying reading.

It reveals that the supply of new skills needed for growth sectors may not meet demand, and that as a result the UK's economy could, in the medium term, falter. If government is to ensure this doesn't happen, it needs to take action now, because this could prove to be a Sword of Damocles hanging over the recovery.

Our research report, 'Engaging employers to drive up skills', reveals a dangerous gap between national policy rhetoric and the attitudes, expectations and capabilities of education providers on the ground. The research found that many providers are either unwilling or unable to invest in developing the expertise or resources in these growth areas, because doing so is risky and unlikely to deliver returns for some time. Whilst education providers fail to act as a result of a lack of direction or support from government, job opportunities in growth areas may move to other countries.

The research shows that the vast majority of current and projected provision from FE colleges and independent providers seems to be in traditional or established sectors such as health and social care, construction, engineering, financial services or catering.

We found that 71 per cent of FE and skills providers thought that there is little or no potential for local or regional growth in life sciences, and 56 per cent think this is the case for advanced manufacturing. These are two sectors which the government sees playing an increasing role in the UK economy as it recovers from the recession.

Of all the participants in the research, only one respondent mentioned green technology as a realistic growth area, another area seen by government as critical to the recovery.

Our research clearly told us that the FE and skills sector need help understanding labour market intelligence and developing curriculum and staff skills in growth sectors. The sector fears a big shortage in specialist staff in the 'priority sectors' which the government wishes to grow nationally, such as low-carbon and digital technology.

If disaster is to be avoided, government needs to strategically invest in the development of capacity both at national and regional level. To begin with, we need to see the establishment of a national programme which will train the specialist staff who can deliver courses in these important new areas. Without a strategic approach to capacity-building, any policies intended to stimulate new sector growth are ultimately doomed to fail, since we won't have the skills to deliver.

Government also needs to adopt a strategic role in planning provision across the country. Providers cannot be blamed for deciding to specialise in certain areas where they have a leading edge in a particular market. But the consequences of uncoordinated decisions of this nature may result in some provision becoming unavailable in some geographic areas, and a glut of provision in others.

The FE and skills sector's need of support is made all the more acute by the budget cuts and the requirement that it moves from state to private funding. Our research indicates that this issue is causing particularly grave concern.

The average college's budget will drop from £20m to £16.8m over the course of the Spending Review period – a huge financial pressure. Developing new provision is expensive for colleges, so at a time when they are simply trying to survive, without central support and direction, the FE and skills sector cannot be expected to prop up our recovery. Over to you, Vince…

This article was written by Sarah Gracey, LSN’s Policy Analyst.