Brexit adds urgency to sorting UK skills supply

Calls for continued “freedom of movement” get enthusiastic support from IT industry audiences. The Parliament and the Internet Conference yesterday was no exception. But the Brexit vote was caused, in no small part, by nationwide frustration with employers exporting jobs or importing skilled staff, rather than reskilling their existing workforce or helping sort out long standing problems with the UK education and training system. HEFCE and the Skills Funding Agency are still fixated with academic standards rather than employability. Perhaps the most egregious example is the ongoing attempt to use the apprentice levy to fund the development of new generation of fragmented anglo-centric programmes courses rather than enable youngsters to acquire employer recognised international qualifications.

The problem is not confined to digital but is perhaps at its most frustrating in our industry. I have sympathy with those who still think it is easier to fight Brexit and continue to import skills rather than try to reform the funding agencies and train our own. I have spent nearly forty frustrating years trying to get policy focused on the skills of the present and future. I have had sporadic successes: such as getting the Micros in Schools written into both Conservative and Labour policy studies before the 1979 manifesto and getting the Chancellor to fund the Millennium Bug busters programme – which provided hands-on intensive ten day courses in micro-processor diagnostics and maintenance for over 40,000 individuals.

But the UK “blob“, with a century of experience since the Universities took charge of education policy in 1917, has always fought back – and narly always wins – albeit it failed in the attempt to remove industry-driven quality control (including the materials and equipment and relevant experience of the teaching staff) from the bug-buster programme.

The “blob” will continue to win unless and until Chief Executives demand action from Secretaries of States in support of their Sector Skills Partnerships. But even that will not succeed unless and until we can persuade the Vice Chancellors and Courts of the Universities that our reliance on imported talent is a symptom of their failure (not success) and that their own future prosperity depends on responding to the winds of change – not backing those who continue pissing in them. You cannot actually beat the blob. You can only change its collective motivation using a mix of carrots and sticks hat they recognise: pride and prestige are at least as significant as money.

I recently helped organise a Digital Policy Alliance 21st Century Skills Group meeting which came up with a Six Point plan which will shortly be circulated for peer review. The summary is below. Please contact DPA (not me, I am now only an advisor) if you would like to join the exercises to help turn Brexit to advantage, including the creation of a new and more constructive relationship with a reformed European Union as well as ensuring that we are globally competitive with “the rest of the world”.

A Six Point Post-Brexit Plan for ensuring Local Access to Global Skills

(Third Draft – please comment to [email protected])

Summary of Key Points:

  •  The referendum campaign highlighted the tension between controlling immigration and access to world class skills, particularly digital. That tension indicates the increasing seriousness of our long term failure to nurture and harness native talent. We need to use the opportunity to review the means of delivering the manifesto commitment to a workforce for the 21st Century and 3 million apprentices.
  •  We need to use the opportunity of bringing skills and training together in a single department to clarify ministerial responsibility (including vis a vis cabinet Office and DCMS) for harnessing the growing employer discontent with current digital skills programmes and levy/grant proposals to bring about commitment to help make the necessary changes and use the results to meet their needs and those of their suppliers, customers and users.
  • The focus should be on the local delivery of globally recognised skills and qualifications, not the requirements of academic funding agencies, although the opportunity should be used to enable and encourage the latter to support UK leadership in pan-EU and wider international co-operation to address known gaps and future needs, in close co-operation with industry.
  • The prime policy objectives should be to make it more attractive to more employers to retrain existing staff and train local youngsters and to avoid policy changes which get in the way of enabling indigenous skills providers to meet local, regional and national needs, to global standards.
  • The six point plan can be summarised as:
  1. Clarify ministerial, departmental and agency responsibilities for consultation, funding, delivery and quality control
  2. Incremental programmes for streamlining and de-duplicating consultation, funding and delivery channels and encouraging cross-boundary co-operation.
  3. Simple processes for recognising reputable industry recognised materials, courses, qualifications for inclusion in publicly co-funded, employer-driven apprenticeships.
  4. Simple processes for supporting co-operation (including with technology vendors and commercial trainers) in the production of modules to fill existing and emerging gaps
  5. Support the replication of good practice, content and assessment with processes which recognise that some commercial players need a direct return on investment while others are providing uncharged access in support of marketing, security or other business objectives.
  6. Improve the quality and availability of material on apprenticeship programmes of all types (including graduate and post graduate), locally as well as nationally
  •  Ministers and officials must recognise the need for change to be incremental. Many of the current suppliers (particularly in the public sector) are in fragile condition, unable to cope with rapid, mandatory or organisational change. Some changes may need to be made rapidly. But others do not. Restructuring and mandatory change (as opposed to carrots) will not help.