We can futureproof our economy by closing our growing digital divide

GUEST BLOG: In this contributed blog post, Andrew Proctor, pro vice chancellor for digital at Staffordshire University, discusses how closing the digital divide in the UK could contribute towards ensuring the UK’s economic future. 

Covid-19 has cemented the need for universities to spotlight the issue of social mobility and put it at the heart of everything they do. The pandemic has changed our day to day lives in a way which has made the digital world more fundamental than ever before. Alongside this, however, has come a stark reminder of how big our digital skills gap is and how crucial it is that we work to close it.

The role universities play in society continues to evolve, and it is now all the more vital that they provide people with the digital skills and the confidence to pursue careers of the future. With headlines reinforcing the notion that people between the age of 25-to-34 are at the biggest risk of losing their jobs – it is key universities act now to help close the growing digital divide.

The lack of skilled workers with the right digital capabilities has been an issue for a long time and we were aware of the problems it would cause long before the first case of Covid-19 was reported more than a year ago. A 2019 report from the Open University highlights this, with organisations in the UK spending more than four billion pounds a year as they are unable to find employees with the right skills – with more than 68% of employers struggling with this problem.

The pandemic has only intensified this issue, with the business world forced to adapt at speed over the last year, and many undergoing digital transformations in a quarter of the time they thought it would take. This in turn will have a knock on effect for the types of jobs available in the future – with a greater number of opportunities in social media, website design and software development to name just a few.

Whilst this is a challenge – it’s also a huge opportunity. We must respond and provide the courses to cater to the needs of employers, as a digitally skilled workforce will bear fruit for our economy.

At Staffordshire University we are designing our courses to provide our students with a head start on acquiring the skills of the future. We have adapted courses to ensure they have a modern twist and provide students with the knowledge they need to prosper. Our ‘Business Management with Sustainability’, ‘Digital and Social Media Marketing’, ‘ and ‘Artificial Intelligence and Robotics’ degrees are just a few examples of the future-facing courses we offer.

With post-pandemic Britain inevitably more online, increased effort must be made to ensure that our pursuit of a digital future does not widen social mobility gaps.

Higher education has a vital role to play in ensuring this is achieved, and it will be the responsibility of universities to work more closely than ever with business and industry to think about how we can ensure this, and this will involve retraining for many, especially on the digital front.

Whilst we shouldn’t make ballerinas retrain to become cybersecurity experts, the resources should be available for anyone who wishes to pursue a different career in the aftermath of the pandemic.

More universities need to offer courses that enable people to get back into university as they attempt to reskill. For example, at Staffordshire University we have our Step Up to Higher Education programme – an initiative which offers people a free 12-week course to develop the key academic skills required for university-level study.

The examples of success are many and varied, including a mature student who spent decades working in a warehouse and is now enrolled on an engineering degree with the aspiration of working in the tech sector.

With the impact of technology on every industry and, by implication, the entire workforce growing it is vital that we help prepare people with the resilience and confidence to regularly refresh and add to their skills to match changing business demand.

We need to do everything in our power to create a Britain that breaks down the barriers people face when they want to better themselves and improve the quality of their life for them and their family.

This can only be achieved by collective effort and a shared desire to level the playing field and close the digital divide.

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