Sitting alongside the £1.5 billion per year adult education budget (AEB), and the £2.8 billion per year apprenticeship levy, the £2.5 billion National Skills Fund (NSF) has been introduced by government “as a critical step… to support people to train, retrain and upskill throughout their lives in response to changing skills needs and employment patterns”. It is good that the government increasingly recognise the importance of lifelong learning and the NSF will be an important lever in supporting more adults to upskill and reskill.
This is needed more than ever before. Amid the onset of the fourth industrial revolution, increasing megatrends such as automation and globalisation, a greening economy and implications from Brexit and Covid-19, the world of work continues to change rapidly. Our economy and labour market must adapt to this changing world of work.
The NSF consultation suggests that “we have a strong education system” but how can this be the case when our schools have a curriculum and pedagogy from the late nineteenth century, an over-emphasis on rote-learning for exams and academic knowledge, squeezing out practical work-place skills, leading to growing skills shortages across the labour market.
We need to strengthen our education and skills system which will play an increasingly important role in supporting future skills needs. While we support the broad principles of the NSF, there are several areas where further thoughts is needed.
Much is said about upskilling, but we need to do more to support reskilling and lifetime learning
The new guarantee only applies to a prescribed list of Level 3 qualifications, but many adults are excluded from this because they have already achieved this level of attainment.
The upskilling challenge should not just be about encouraging more adults to hold a Level 3. The CBI estimate that 26m workers will require upskilling and 5m will need retraining by 2030 and this will require adults to progress and retrain both vertically and horizontally.
However, participation is ironically especially low amongst those most in need of upskilling and reskilling. Adults with low skill levels, for example, are three times less likely to participate in training than those with high-level skills (20% v. 58%) (OECD, 2019)
With the oncoming changes to the economy and labour market, we need to encourage learners to embrace a mindset of lifelong learning. Moreover, with the impact of digitalisation and automation, workers across different sectors and occupations, at very varied skill levels are likely to need to upgrade and change their skills. In addition, more people aged 25-34 want to retrain (14% compared with 10% across all age groups) or follow a completely different career path (14% compared with 9% all ages) since the pandemic (Aviva, 2021). There will be many adults who, even with an existing level 3, may need to reskill at lower levels.
Upskilling at higher levels should not come at the expense of basic skills and Level 2 as this risks limiting opportunity. So we encourage Government to look seriously at a similar free entitlement for a first full Level 2.
Growing Level 3 and above is a good aim, but it cannot come at the expense of basic skills. We need to see a long term plan supported by substantial funding commitments
The Learning and Work Institute have highlighted that spending on adult education has been cut by 50 per cent in real terms, since 2009/10. This has led to fewer opportunities for people to learn at lower levels, leading to a 40 per cent drop in participation in adult basic skills provision in the last five years.
While funding for the NSF is welcome, the Institute for Fiscal Studies have highlighted that the NSF spending commitment will only reverse about one-third of the cuts to adult education spending since 2009–10 and would take total spending on adult education back to around the level it was in 2014–15. Funding is currently skewed towards upskilling at Levels 4-6. Meanwhile, other funding streams (such as the AEB) which have been focused on basic skills and lower level learning have been cut and new funds like the NSF are more focused on Level 3.
The NSF is opening up more opportunities for adults to reskill, but £3bn over five years will not be enough. We need to see longer term commitment and a higher level of investment if the NSF is to become truly successful.
More needed to support living costs and confidence building
There is currently no national system of full-time or part-time maintenance loans to support 19-24 year-olds with living costs to achieve a first full Level 3, let alone all adults to do so. Insecure incomes and low pay would make paid time off for retraining impossible for many adults who need to retrain most. Reskilling will not happen for those who feel insecure about their personal and household finances. So we need to see grant funding and maintenance loans extended to those wishing to reskill at Level 2 and Level 3 and adults who are combining employment and caring responsibilities with part-time study, particularly supporting those who need to retrain the most.
More broadly, further work needs to be done to support some adults to overcome self-belief barriers. For example, older learners, those who are furthest away from the labour market or those who might have had poor experiences at school, may need extra support and encouragement to re-engage with learning.
Employers also have a role to play here. Learning & Work Institute (2021) highlight the necessity of getting managers on board to support low-skilled workers in the workforce. So we must also consider mechanisms to incentivise a commitment to good management practice and development.