A Skills Policy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The pace of change in the skills in demand (as machine intelligence, now called AI, matures) is matched only by the pace of change in educational technology (using machine intelligence to transform the learning experience) and the ways we can use to acquire the new skills.

Both have overtaken the ability of our national education and training frameworks to respond and the main political parties have recognised this.

Last year the Conservatives called for inputs on Skills and Training for the 21st Century . Labour similarly called for responses to their “Learning society” discussion paper . Meanwhile an army of education “industry” lobbyists have been seeking to influence the Prime Ministers FE/HE funding review  due for publication later this month.  The Open University has just joined the Digital Policy Alliance with the aim of building on the work of the 21CN Skills Group of the Digital Policy Alliance and its allies. Last week we began the hand-over of the work I have been doing over the past couple of years to bring about change.  The “public” programme will include a high level, all-party round table to discuss the policy challenges.

I have just completed editing the first draft of a paper to help inform that discussion. The paper is very much “draft for discussion only” and is being placed in the members areas of the DPA website for comment. Given that this is not yet a DPA discussion paper and we want balanced input, I have also been given clearance to circulate copies to wider audiences. The purpose of this blog is therefore to invite feedback from a wider audience and identify those interested in helping look at the implications.

Below are some of the headlines and a summary of the key points and contents. Please contact DPA if you would like to register interest in joining to help review the draft and organise the necessary follow up studies.  Alternatively you can contact me direct.  I particularly look forward to comment on errors and omissions and, of course, from those who completely disagree with the analysis and regard me as a heretic who should be burned at the stake for not understanding academic values or business drivers.  That will be a nice change from those who say that I am really an academic at heart or a cold-blooded capitalist.

The headline recommendations for Government include:

1) Apply industry-strength market research and simulation techniques to all education and training policy initiatives to help assess the relevance of the objectives and likelihood of success.

2) Change the “target” from 50% “to go to University” to over half (including most public sector employees) to be engaged in life-long learning at graduate/post graduate level.

3) All academically or professionally accredited education, training (including recruitment) and assessment to be allowable against tax (personal and/or corporate), whether or not relevant to current employment.

4) Apprentice grant and levy scheme and other tax allowances/incentives to be extended to cover all professionally accredited training or technical/professional skills acquisition or development costs, including talent attraction, assessment, pastoral care, supervision, schools support etc.

Extracts from the preface

In 1982 I said (at a seminar on AI and Robotics for the UK Technical Press) “a single career change may not be enough in an age of fundamental structural evolution”. Today we can see the spread of annually updated professional and technician “certificates to practice” from medical consultants and aerospace engineers to other areas where proof of current competence is essential. Meanwhile digital marketing or security practitioners can become seriously out of date within months unless they spend time each week keeping up to date. A more profound problem than the supposed threat to jobs is the challenge posed by artificial intelligence to the status of academic values and the knowledge-based professions.

We have, today, a wealth of globally networked on-line materials and assessment tools (many using AI, from the simple to the sophisticated) that can enable teachers and learners to keep abreast of change, including of personal competence, motivation and performance. But our consultation and planning mechanism for setting skills definitions and standards, let alone forecasting volumes, cannot keep pace. We need to look again at policy and funding frameworks and processes that have changed little in a hundred years. We need to allow schools, colleges and universities to give teachers and pupils/students the freedom to follow good practice as it evolves, without waiting for semi-mandatory national “guidance” and funding.

Key Points

1) Analyses of the reasons for the voting patterns in the 2016 referendum and 2017 General Election indicate that, whatever the outcome of Brexit, it is no longer politically acceptable for the UK to rely on imported talent for the skills needed by employers while saddling so many voters and their children with debts they may never repay. It is little wonder that the study into FE and HE funding launched by the Prime Minister last year is taking so long. The issues go well beyond funding. The pace of change with regard to the skills in demand and our ability to use technology to help assess, educate and train raw talent have outstripped the ability of public sector policy, funding and accreditation processes to respond to the resultant challenges and opportunities.

2) At the same time the mass deployment of on-line learning, expert systems and artificial intelligence means memory and logic are losing status, as did the ability to read and write when literacy became commonplace. Basic digital disciplines (such as coding and systems thinking) change slowly, if at all, but the application skills in demand change faster than we can agree a curriculum, let alone agree academically acceptable accreditation of the knowledge and competence expected by employers and specify and deliver publicly funded courses and qualifications. The pressures pose an existential challenge to traditional educational hierarchies and academic structures, not just planning and funding processes.

3) There has been a dramatic shortening (from years to months) of the time necessary to assemble mass market or customized on-line learning programmes, many using “AI” and gamification to enable personalised motivation, delivery, practice and assessment. Skills which took months or years to master can then be acquired within days or weeks by those with the necessary attitude and aptitude. But the gap between the expected delivery standards and timescales of industry and commerce and those of academic accreditation bodies are widening, equally dramatically.

4) There are also tensions between processes (from “T” levels through Apprenticeship or Degree Standards) intended to meet the needs of specific sectors, trades or professions and the growing use of “intelligent systems” (accessing whatever body of knowledge is needed) to enable digital users to cross disciplinary boundaries. The current focus on national “standards” needs to embrace processes to facilitate customized cross-boundary skills development, mixing pre-existing and/or shared modules from an evolving variety of sources, national and international.

5) The falling proportion of the population who can now expect one career (let alone job) for life brings into question the mandatory, “league table enforced”, focus of schools on “national” curricula and examination hierarchies designed to filter pupils for “suitable” full-time University degree courses. The availability of reliable of schools broadband should be used to empower teachers to “educate” all with the basic skill and motivation for a world of modular, flexible, graduate level, lifelong “earn while you learn”, with time out to “enjoy learning for its own sake”, changing career, occupation and vocation as aspirations and the employment on offer evolve.

6) There are growing pressures on Universities and College to improve teaching and pastoral care as they compete for the student loans and apprentice funding of a shrinking pool of school-leavers. The long-term winners will be those who also work with employers (local, national and international) and sports, leisure, cultural and travel operations to offer and exploit lifelong learning activities which support freedom of choice with regard to work-life balance – from career development, through family responsibilities to post retirement “learning for pleasure”.

7) We can also see some of the older Public Schools and Oxbridge Colleges, masters of survival, involving their alumni with careers events which offer world-class globe-trotting apprenticeships, with residential periods in best of breed research centres around the world. At the other end of society, far-sighted councils are looking at the provision of full fibre broadband to social housing estates – to provide affordable access for the excluded (whatever reason) to world class education and training programmes supported by teachers based on their local school/college.


1) Turning the pace of change from a challenge to an opportunity
1.1 Tomorrow came yesterday
1.2. The pieces are in place for a world class industrial strategy for educational technology
1.3. We also need a joined-up strategy for vocational skills and employment
1.4 Both require cross-boundary co-operation
1.5 It presents challenges to traditional academic structures not just processes
1.6 Variety is the spice of life – One size will not fit all

2) Predicting the skills of the future in ways that aid meaningful decisions
2.1 Planning Consortia, Consultation and Market Research
2.2 Segmentation: from expert, through professional, technician and application to user
2.3 The shape-shifting of skills boundaries across trades, professions and disciplines
2.4 Basic attitudes, aptitudes and disciplines change slowly, if at all
2.5 Coding , robotics, systems thinking and data analytics (the basis of AI) are core
2.6 The rate of change in technician and applications skills is accelerating
2.7 Growing the talent pool
2.8 Is “digital literacy” still needed, as opposed to literacy, numeracy and social skills?

3 A national strategy based on local access to global planning and delivery partnerships
3.1 Facilitate rapid, flexible, local response within national planning/funding frameworks
3.2 Enable local access to international programmes and globally recognized qualifications
3.3 The Linage and interoperability of learning and competence modules is critical
3.4 So too is building on the bet of what already works
3.5 Enabling local access to international programmes and globally recognized qualitications
3.6 Support faster UK response cycles to emerging/changing demand
3.7 “Liberate” Universities, Colleges and Schools to serve as local, national or global support and delivery hubs in world class life-long learning, quality control and/or research networks
3.8 Change the Apprentice Levy and Grant into an Accredited Skills Levy and Rebate

4 Empowering Informed Choice
4.1 The growing range of choices
4.2 Help pupils, parents, adults and employers understand the alternatives

5 Removing the obstacles to painless change
5.1 Facilitating response to changing the economics of retrain versus recruit
5.2 Prioritise tax-free training over the “prevention of abuse”
5.3 Replace “challenges” by “funded experiments” and publicise success
5.4 Raise the status of apprentices
5.5 Link skills policy to immigration policy

6 The Action Plan
6.1 Recommendations for Employers and Recruiters
6.2 Recommendations for Education and Training Providers
6.3 Recommendations for Trade Unions and Professional Bodies
6.4 Recommendations for Central Government
6.5 Recommendations for Local Government
6.6 Recommendations for Voters

1 Turning the pace of change from a challenge to an opportunity

Accelerating technology change presents serious challenges to those seeking to plan courses and curricula in advance to meet predicted skills needs – examples include the new “T” levels. But advances in educational technology also transform our ability to develop and distribute new courses and materials to meet new needs within months, not years.

1.1 Tomorrow came yesterday
We can now see the reality of the future envisaged in the early 1980s when the Micros in Schools programme was launched and “Training for multi-career lives” was commissioned as part of project to look at the implications for society (including education) of the adoption of “Knowledge based reasoning systems” over “The Next Ten Years”. The seminar was for the UK technical press on the economic and social implications of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics for Education. This was the paper than introduced the concept that education should be the introduction to a world of life-long learning rather than a career for life and that. “status will pass to the man doing the job that no mere machine can do”.

The forecast was that:
The impact of technology on the personal service jobs, from street cleaning to street walking, will be negligible. Gardeners, window cleaners, plumbers, cooks and so on will be needed just as now.
At the other end of society, however, the changes may well be traumatic as expert systems render obsolete the book-learning and machine-like logical skills of most lawyers, accountants and consultants … the complex diagnoses that elevate the Harley Street consultant above the local general practitioner, can already be done faster and more accurately by computer. In twenty years … the general practitioner will no longer refer you to the hospital for analyses and diagnoses but will do them himself with the aid of his surgery expert systems backed by links to national epidemiological and other databases … the simple application of memory and logic which any properly programmed computer can do.

The consequent argument was both re-assuring and challenging. To quote the abstract:

Most of the basic skills needed over the next hundred years can be predicted with reasonable certainty but many of the precise trades and professions cannot. “Age related careers” is an employment strategy which can handle such uncertainty. Fundamental changes to the education system are necessary. Information technology makes these possible at economic cost. Encouragement and favourable publicity are more effective weapons of persuasion than coercion but many actions at all levels are needed if the inability of our education system to cope with change is not to deny us the benefits which the new technology is bringing to other societies.

Since then millions of jobs have been lost and millions more created as the pace of change accelerates. Today a wealth of globally networked on-line materials and assessment tools (many using AI, from the simple to the sophisticated) enables teachers and learners to transform the processes of acquiring and demonstrating both knowledge competence in new skills. These are used by employers around the world to cut the time from “learning to earning” from years to weeks.

Schools with access to full fibre broadband can transform the delivery of STEM education and careers advice, using the wealth of material already available. They are also being used to open the potential for lifelong learning in the skills of future.

Example include the commoditization of both Artificial Intelligence (many definitions and variations as the human intelligence copies/extends) and training in how to apply it. In May 2018 the University of Helsinki and a design consultancy launched an app to promote a free online “Elements of AI course. By December 2018 this had been adopted by 250 Finnish companies as part of their response to the business case for the Finnish industrial strategy to lead the world in the application of AI and over 10,000 students, 6,300 from Finland, had already graduated using the English language version).

To see more please register your interest in joining the 21CN Skills Group with the DPA  or contact me with you details.

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