A UK Strategy for the 4th Industrial Revolution?

The Education Select Committee of the House of Commons has invited evidence for an enquiry into the challenges posed and opportunities presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution: “Characterised by the emergence of a range of new technologies including artificial intelligence, robotics and the internet of things. The changes are likely to have a major impact on both productivity and the labour market, with low and medium skilled jobs most at risk.”

Back in 1982, when my personal reputation as a futurologist was riding high, with the implementation of the micros in schools programme that I had sold to both Conservative and Labour parties during the run-up to the 1979 election, the late Donald Michie set me a challenge similar to that posed by the Select Committee. He had been invited to organise the annual Sperry seminar for the UK Technical Press on “The Next Ten Years” with speakers on artificial intelligence, expert systems and the future of work, education and medicine on education and skills. My presentation was on “Training for Multi-Careers Lives”. I recently retrieved the original text and put it on-line when the topic again became fashionable.

Much has changed since 1982, although much has not. Those who attacked my analysis because it undermined all they held dear (from “the examination treadmill” to the “PhD rat race”) have successfully resisted change to Government academic funding and accreditation structures and priorities until now. But the treadmill is rotten (with model answers available over the Internet almost as soon as they have been agreed for issue to moderators) and global intellectual piracy (alias “the free interchange of knowledge for the benefit of all”) makes it much harder to assess the abilities of the rats. Governments and select committees and others have organised many studies and consultations into skills gaps and/or the skills of the future over the decades since.  Most summarise the mixes of platitudes, generalisations and minutiae on which the main interest groups can agree. I therefore encourage those interest to reply individually, not just via the interest groups to which they belong.

None of the groups with which I am linked are to be blamed for my thoughts below on the topics on which the Committee has invited submissions – although I have stolen some of the better material (i.e. that which I agreed with then and still do so today) from many of them.

1) The interaction between the Government’s industrial, skills and digital strategies

I referred in my most recent blog  to my experiences with the only one of the 1970 Industrial Strategy exercises to deliver its objectives. Central to that success was the recognition that “The Way Ahead” was constrained by the ability to recruit, retrain and/or relocate the skills needed. Later, as a Corporate Planner for the Wellcome Foundation (later sold by the Wellcome Trust to GSK), I saw how a global player decided where to base R&D and production (as opposed to marketing and packaging) operations and how central and local governments competed to attract us.

The key factors for inclusion on our short lists were:

• Reliable access to reliable global telecommunications – to enable informed/accurate response to an outbreak of disease or a quality problem, anywhere in the world, inside 48 hours.

• Rapid physical access to an efficient hub airport – to carry product or people to/from anywhere in the world inside 24/48 hours as part of an emergency response.

• Were key staff (scientists, technicians etc.) willing to move there – mix of life style, schooling, housing, health service, law and order and personal taxation.

• The quality of the local workforce – attitude, education, skills.

One of my tasks at Wellcome was to help get more reliable global data communications (including via multiple routes which did not pass through the same UK exchanges). Hence the willingness of my Director to allow me to spend time on Telecoms Liberalisation and Privatisation before and after the 1979 election. That helped lead to my subsequent career with the National Computing Centre (no relation to later reincarnations), the Parliamentary IT Committee (now PICTFOR) and EURIM (now the Digital Policy Alliance), looking at ICT policy from the perspective of corporate users and those who had to make the technology work in practice (the victims). That often put me at odds with the suppliers, academics and enthusiasts who wanted us to spend more (time and money) in using it – whether or not it was cost effective or fit for purpose.

The local availability of reliable, resilient full fibre access to multiple backhaul networks is still the main constraint on attracting the businesses the future to most parts of the UK. The “Industrial Strategy” should include using a mix of Janet/JISC (the UK national IPV6 ready network connecting University super-computer centres) and the Grids for Learning (who provide secure internet connections to most schools, peered via Janet) to help pull through investment in both the backhaul and the local access networks. They are part of the critical national infrastructure (including for health and welfare) . They are crucial to economic survival, not just competitiveness. They also underpin put ability to give the skills of the future to our current and future workforce.

That approach enables the use of reliable cloud-based educational products and services to transform local access (from school, college, workplace, bedroom or community centre) to world class education and training. This is currently constrained in the UK by the risk that an obsolete mixed (copper, aluminium and fibre) network may go down – leaving classrooms in chaos.

Meanwhile there is also a much better case for supporting local airports, from Plymouth to Newcastle and Manston to Manchester in preference to further distorting the UK economy with taxpayer support for either Heathrow or  HS2.

2) The suitability of the current curriculum to prepare young people for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Thirty five years ago I argued that the pace of change was such that no “current curriculum” would prepare young people for the future. Education had to focus on basic disciplines and the willingness and ability to learn new content and skills as and when needed. Coding is one of those disciplines -as a mental discipline and training in pure and applied logic. Linked to basic robotics (whether computer controlled Meccano/Lego or squadrons of robot tanks battling it out on the classroom floor) it is also great at engaging the hearts and minds of the non-academic and can be used to foster social inter-action and skills between those of very different attitudes, aptitudes and abilities (including physical).

In 1997 in “Reskilling Europe for the Information Society” a working group of employers, professional bodies and trade associations summarised the curriculum problem thus:

“The increasing rate of change is such that the “half life” of IT skills is down to little more than two years. But the time taken to approve new technical degree courses or qualifications in most parts of Europe is at least three years …
Education and training decision processes must distinguish between:
• fundamental skills, where demand changes slowly (such as literacy, numeracy, languages and academic/professional disciplines);
• vocational skills, where curricula may need to change at 12 18 months notice (for example demand for new mixes of technology, business and language skills); and
• product or technology skills, where courses may need to be developed, piloted and packaged for mass roll out within 2 – 3 months ( for example, when a new operating system like Windows 95 or NT rapidly captures a mass market).
. . .
Basic literacy, numeracy and learning skills are essential, but national curricula are commonly too narrow to ensure students are well prepared to compete for employment in global markets. … Competing international networks might … be more effective … Thus a Montessori network serving schools from Sienna to Stornoway might give better service to Salen (a small village on the Isle of Mull) than a Strathclyde network based on Glasgow.

There is a …need … to streamline the means of agreeing … objectives …
The problem is apparent if one takes a specific area and asks:
• what should be the outputs from schools/colleges?
• what are the processes for achieving those outputs?
• what skills/resources do the teachers or lecturers need?
• how will the teachers/lecturers acquire those skills/materials?
• what is the timescale from start of debate on objectives to start of delivery?
Many skills needed in telecoms, broadcasting, networking and multimedia production are not even acreditable under current processes …. competition is likely to provide better answers than central planning.
We cannot afford the delay if programmes for the emergent skills were to be based on yet another layer of professional/academic co ordinating bodies.”

3) The impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the delivery of teaching and learning in schools and colleges

The growing use of on-line packaged materials, not just for content delivery and practice but for course planning and performance assessment has transformed industries ability to identify raw talent and turn it into competent, revenue earning technicians or professionals within weeks or months, not years. This has changed the balance of economic and social value between full time degrees and modular graduate level training programmes (including, but not just, apprenticeships) . A talented teenager on a well-structured blended learning programme (mixing supervised, experiential on-the-job learning with off-the-job contextual/academic modules) can soon do sufficient productive work to cover most, if not all, of their ongoing training costs and salary. By the time they are 21 they may, in some industries such as banking, be managing graduate trainees with over £50,000 of debt and who will never bridge the seniority, let alone earnings, gap.

Large technology employers and well-known Universities can see the consequences. The balance of effort on talent acquisition and development is beginning to change from graduate recruitment and a merry-go-round of job-hopping to in-house staff development, whether or not linked to apprenticeships, training contracts and other forms of staff retention. They are therefore working together to repackage the best of existing processes as graduate level apprenticeship so that the employers can reclaim their levy, jointly accrediting universities for residential modules. Some are also working with schools and colleges adjacent to their main locations to organise “feeder” apprenticeships for technician level skills and to meet the needs of SME in their supply chain.

The growing volume of STEM and other educational available to schools on line, including to plan courses against the national curriculum, is beginning to transform delivery but most teachers are still unaware of the support already available , let alone the volume of content “curated” by panels of teachers and pupils for secure distribution and support over the Grids for Learning and their partners/suppliers , let alone that available globally (albeit less securely) from their other sources over the Internet.

Meanwhile those planning new courses and curricula appear unaware how material already available over the Grids can be used to remove much of the workload involved in planning delivery and assessment. Looking ahead AI-based packages are already being used by industry used for “one size fits one” delivery and assessment (bypassing the problem of model answers being downloaded and shared). We will soon see similarly techniques on offer to schools around the world.

The biggest obstacles to change in the UK include:

• confusion over what is good practice (at almost every level)

• consultation and planning overload – too many education and training providers (from government agencies, through colleges and universities) asking employers similarly unanswerable questions and making unreasonable expectations of schools, teachers and parents

• lack of information on what is known to work (and any pre-conditions for success)

• lack of information on who is doing what/how (and on opportunities to copy and/or co-operate)

• lack of effective communications channels between employers, schools, parents and pupils (for example there is no UCAS equivalent for apprenticeship programmes and the Careers and Enterprise Company is being expected to help the LEPs fill a long-standing (since 1992 when the Department for Education and Science became the Department for Education and no-one picked up support for  careers advice) the gap at the same time as supporting short term activities.

4) The role of lifelong learning in re-skilling the current workforce

In 1982, when “Training for multi-career lives” was edited into “Learning for Change” (the second best-selling Bow Group paper of all time), I said that “a single career change may not be enough in an age of fundamental structural evolution”. I then envisaged three or four career changes in a lifetime with the need for an in-career “update” every other year. By 1997 the half-life of many digital skills was indeed down to two years. Today we can see the spread of annually updated professional and technician “certificates to practice” from medical consultants 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.

The distinction between the mix of structured education and training to acquire a skill and the stream of continuous development to maintain current technical/professional competence has become blurred. This is an opportunity for those Universities and Colleges to provide/host updating services for local employers and alumni around the world. It is a growing revenue stream for those professional bodies (as yet usually American) who also run quality controlled, professionally run, accredited mentoring programmes – as opposed to the voluntary schemes involving unpaid amateurs, retirees and semi-social meetings, commonly offered in the UK.

We also need to remember that those whose skills no longer in demand are bigger source of experienced and motivated talent than school leavers or graduates for many of the skills in greatest shortage. Conversion and returner courses should be a large a source of income for colleges and universities as they are for many commercial training providers.

5) Place-based strategies for education and skills provision

The UK population (including the workforce) is split between a mobile minority (e.g. students and young graduates) and the majority, who rarely move home because of the expense, let alone because of family commitments and other ties. The split is growing because of the need for graduates to repay student loans at a time of increasing housing shortage. This leads to well publicised “skills crises” in locations where employers are competing for recruits without investing in their own “affordable accommodation” facilities (e.g. networks of “approved” landladies, apprentice/student hostels and/or apartments/flats for employees to rent).

The majority of recruitment, education and training is within well-established travel to work/school areas (whether urban or rural). Meanwhile analyses of “national demand” reflect the needs of the minority of large employers who recruit nationally (nearly always for jobs in and around London or a handful of University Cities and their adjacent commercial/manufacturing centres and science parks). The consequences can be seriously misleading with regard to local plans based on “national average” demand and supply. Hence the unenviable UK track record of failure when it comes to top down, nationally planned education and training programmes. Even attempts to scale up locally successful pilots commonly fail. There is massive diversity of local demand, supply, resources and competence in “travel to work or training areas”.

Arguably the only successful large scale UK education and training change programmes were the original Micros in Schools Programme, the Information Technology Exchanges (who delivered City and Guilds 726 in the 1980s) and the Millennium Bug Busters Programme (during the run up to Y2K). The first succeeded because of the publicity provided by the BBC and the efforts of the suppliers and enthusiasts in the period before the DfE finally created the Micro-electronics Support Units (later BECTA). The ITECs were killed off because they focussed on applications for which local employees would offer work experience projects and mentoring. This did not suit funding agencies who counted those who preferred jobs (however well paid) to “qualifications” as failures. Few of the then DfE training providers met the “industry strength quality control” criteria demand by Treasury as a condition of funding for the Bugbusters Programme. The lessons were therefore ignored as irrelevant.

The way forward is to support the creation of local skills partnerships akin to that in Plymouth . This builds on local networks, some of which go back over forty years . Many other communities have similar potential but there are some common constraints:

• the availability of local training providers (college, university or commercial) capable of helping employers to select modules relevant to their needs and organize “just in time”, blended learning, including mentoring and supervised work experience, when and where needed.

• The availability of potential shared skills incubators to support those in SMEs too small to provide application-related mentoring and supervisory skills let alone to customize programmes from the wealth of material already on offer from around the world.

• The willingness of universities, council economic development units and local enterprise partnerships to host meetings to bring together local public (including NHS, law enforcement etc.) and private sector employers (including via their existing groups), recruitment agencies, commercial training providers, colleges and schools to help each other meet their respective objectives, without necessarily bidding for OPM (other people’s money).

• Pre-occupation with bids for funding from central government “challenge” schemes. The mix of competition and central control flies in the face of the spirit of co-operation between equals to create “self-help coalitions of the willing” which appears to drive local.

6) The challenges and opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for improving social justice and productivity

35 years ago I wrotethe impact of technology on personal service jobs, from street cleaning to street walking, will be negligible. Gardeners, window cleaners, plumbers, cooks and so on will be needed as much as they are 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.”.

I then went on to list a series of jobs that “can already be done faster and more accurately by computer”.

Since then our legislators and regulators have performed a magnificent role creating ever more complex compliance systems to keep otherwise redundant bureaucrats fully occupied. One consequence is that we have been unable to redeploy talent to the challenge of looking after our aging population. “No End of Jobs” (Conservative Political Centre 1984 – not available on line but a few quotes here) began with a chilling analysis “Simple demographics show that over the next few decades our workforce will shrink and the number of pensioners to be supporter will grow. Meanwhile the cost of energy and raw materials will continue to increase. If we do not make better use of technology to create more wealth and simultaneously release and equip manpower to take better care of the elderly, you and I will grow old and cold alone, in the dark.” A period of runaway immigration then helped delay the crisis – but it is now upon us.

Meanwhile those in inner cities and rural areas, whether or not they have been excluded from mainstream education and are among the 30% who have acquired criminal records or need assistance to go on-line, are falling ever further behind those who have access to full fibre broadband and the education and training facilities it enables.

There are a growing number of imaginative programmes to identify those with, for example, neuro-diverse talents who could be turned from “problems” into assets. But these are pissing in the wind without serious attempts to enable every community, faith, health or welfare centre or outreach service to also draw those they support into on-line lifelong and on-line social contact programmes that meet their needs. The Grids for Learning could provide the necessary infrastructure and carry the content at relatively low incremental cost – but infrastructure and content carriage are not enough. Those who are economically and socially excluded need people contact to help them get on-line without being further victimised on the way.

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