Education for unemployment or training for the jobs of the future

On 9th September I was tasked to organise a response from the Information Society Alliance to the BIS Consultations on: Skills for Sustainable Growth and A simplified further education and skills funding system and methodology. Both have a deadline of October 10th. I have just realised that I have seen no publicity for either and fear a re-run of the consultations we have had every couple of years for about thirty years – with responses dominated by those farming a system of state support that dates back to 1917.

However, the current spending crisis and need to preserve the UK from terminal economic decline may offer an opportunity to secure genuine change.  I therefore urge all those with an interest in the subject to make their own submissions as well.

The current system dates back to 1917 and is essentially a pyramid to support world-class scientific research teams akin to those of the Germans before the first World War – but with the links to industry driven by committes dominated by academics rather than industrialists. It has succeeded remarkably well, but on the way has gobbled up as the other types of excellence in education and training that had made the UK the workshop of the world in all but military technology.  Public support for training is today almost synonymous with adult literacy and teaching English to immigrants (both disguised as IT literacy to justify bigger budgets).

The main weakness of the thinking behind the consultation appears at the very start.

Paragraph 4 contains an excellent summary of the main reasons why “market forces” have failed to solve the UK skills problem: “There are many reasons why emplyers and individuals may choose not to invest in learning and skills. These include an inability of firms to cpature the benfits from investing in skills, fear of poaching of workers by other firms, credit constratints, a reliance on migrant workers, insufficient knowledge about learning opportunities, uncertainty about financial returns as well as lack of confidence of those with low skills about returning to learning”.

The consultation paper fails to address these or even to ask for inputs on how to address them.

It is largely focussed on how to improve the allocation of government funding to the existing suppliers hierarchies and draw in additinal funding from the private sector. The list of target consultees at the back also illustrates why I had not noticed the consultation until one of the MPs on the Council  of the Information Society Alliance (EURIM) asked me to organise a response.

There are many ommissions but the most obvious are the professional bodies, the trades unions and the many trade associations. Approaching the Skills Councils, CBI  and TUC may be the way consultations have been done in the past but is not enough if the aim includes opening up debate on how to the prevent the skills of the current workforce from continuing to atrophy as we draw in immigrants to fill the jobs we cannot outsource – while teaching the unemployed little more than how to surf the internet to make there benfits go a little further.

The draft that I hope to be able to circulate to Alliance membership next week will probably use  Information Security skills as an example of where action is urgently needed to improve and update the skills of those currently in post, not just those who may enter the workforce in years to come.

Subject to feedback from the main recommendations will probably be:  

1) to recognise that local supplies of world-class technician (NVQ level 3) and post graduate skills are the reason for technology clusters. They are central to attracting the industries and jobs of the future to the UK as a whole, as well as to locations within it. 

2) to rationalise consultation channels around those sector skills councils that can demonstrate the support of employers (of all sizes) across the idustries they serve, plus the relevant trade associations, professional bodies and trades unions. The councils will also need to be given the authority to do the job properly, including by government as an employer.

3) to replace vain attempts to forecast skills needs years in advance (to support curriculum planning) by industry strength market research into the skills needed now, with rapid response routines to handle changing needs. There is particular and long ignored a need to recognise and accept the difference between education and training. Basic professional and techical disciplines change slowly, if at all. But they are essentiall if individuals to be able to rapidly master ephemeral technology specific skills as these change and evolve over time. The half life of such skills was estimated at 18 months a decade ago and may be even shorter today.

4) government, central and local, should focus on being an intelligent customer, equipping its own staff with the skills they need today and requiring its contractors to train rather than recruit when skills are in short supply. The reasons why departments whose staff need updating fail to send senior staff on relevant courses at the School of Government or Shrivenham to fill skills gaps at the  top (let along among the high fliers from who so much will be expected in the future) should be investigated and used to inform thinking on training policy at all levels. 

5) the focus should be on cutting the after-tax cost of training (particularly of time away from the work-place and of properly supervised work experience) to professional and technician standards. There are major benefits if networks of Universities and FE Colleges can deliver local modular training to common standards as one of their mainstream sources of funding, but there are even more if they can also help with workplace supervision and assessment.

6) Programmes for those currently outside the current labour market should be focussed on skills currently in local demand in the same travel to work/training area, with local employers involved in trainee selection, motivation and work experience placement. Success should be measured by placement into sustainable employment, whether or not the inividual stays on to acquire a paper qualification.  Where there are no local jobs in prospect the need is to look much harder at how to make it easier for UK NEETs to move to be trained where the work is, perhaps living in the equvalent of University halls of residence or company hostels. This may appear Victorian  but many of their ideas were more practical and humane than the cold-hearted bureaucracit ideas of today.

In looking at the material that I have on file I came upon my 2004 briefing for IMIS members on the Politics of Global Learning Networks for the Information Age. It is frightening to realise that what I was predicting has now happened.

We face a major challenge to catch up with the skills frameworks of what we used to think of as the Third World. If we fail we will have fallen into the dustbin of economic history before today’s school-leavers have graduated or the GCSE students have started their “appenticeships”

I reproduce that briefing below:


ICT Education and Training: World-classroom (August 2004)

– Global learning networks for the information age


The challenge of a changing world


The western domination of global learning markets is coming to an end. Last year China became the largest generator of Internet traffic outside the United States. It is also starting to leapfrog America in key ICT technologies. For example the development of IPV6 is no longer being driven through the Internet Engineering Task Force. It is being driven by China, Korea and Japan through the International Telecommunications Union with an 18 month cycle for the agreement of standards and a six week fast track routine.


The nations of the Pacific Rim need those standards NOW for the inter-active visual computing products and services they are rolling out over their mass-market broadband networks: from housewives video-gossiping and replays of soap operas, through 22 player interactive football, inter-active cartooning and on-line kareoke to transforming the skills of the workforce, the ways that products are designed and developed and that assembly and distribution are organised.


Most of the R&D for consumer products and end-user systems has also moved from the US and Europe to the Far East, for production in plants ranging from Korea to Indonesia. But it is not just consumer products. China, home of rocketry and printing, now dominates civilian aerospace and has leading edge research establishments in a growing number of industries, from cars to communications to cryptography. 


Asia, from Beijing to Bollywood, is also leapfrogging the west into a world of visually based education, training, entertainment content which cannot even be viewed in much of Europe because of lack of bandwidth. Barely a third of the users of the Internet now have English as their first language. Chinese has overtaken Japanese as the second language with Spanish (including for South America) fourth.


The need to make a reality of lifelong learning


It is over twenty years since the first studies on the need to use ICT to support life-long learning for multi-career lives. Most of us, let alone our children, will have at least three, perhaps many more, very different types of job and life-style during our working lives. Over the past decade, large organisations like British Aerospace and CISCO have been transforming the way they train their staff and those of their customers and, equally importantly, keep them up to date as products, services and technologies change.


But public debate, especially in the West, is still almost entirely about use of the technology in schools: at best transforming the way we learn how to learn. At worst, learning transient user skills that will be obsolete inside a decade.  Politicians may talk of the need for more skilled workforces but their officials then focus taxpayers funding on traditional, full-time courses of the type they enjoyed in their youth. Those who wish to acquire internationally recognised professional qualifications to earn a living, commonly have to pay for themselves or rely on relatives, unless they are lucky enough to find an employer who will take on trainees. Those who need to retrain in mid-career commonly have to fund themselves.


The time has come for joined up debate involving all sides.


A typical recent example of the gap between policy objectives and agency actions is that in the UK. The Government White Paper, Paper “21st Century Skills: Realising our Potential”, signed by the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Secretaries of State for Education, Trade and Industry and Work and Pensions began by stating “that we must put employers needs for skills centre stage”. The focus of the e-Learning consultation paper released at the same time was on better preparing the majority of teenagers to spend two to three years away from home at a residential university. The subsequently announced funding increases were all for disbursement by the traditional councils and agencies for University teaching and research..


Like Military Service, with which it has been compared, the university experience is invaluable for some and a waste of time or counter-productive for others, although the dropouts are not yet punished for desertion. The value to the minority needs to be measured against the cost to the majority.  The selection process means that most of the population associates learning with examination trauma. Attempts to expand quantity while maintaining quality have also triggered series of interlocking funding crises. There must be (and are) better ways.


Networked learning is the key


The half-life of many of the key skills in the knowledge economy is barely 18 months. Those who are not engaged in regular technical and professional updating programmes, whether funded by the employee, the taxpayer or themselves will be unable to compete on quality, let alone price, with their peers in the developing world. We need to focus debate on the means of bringing world class learning opportunities to students when and where they need them.


Residential centres of research and learning have a key role in the knowledge economy but are not well suited to developing the skills needed by the majority of learners. We need a much greater focus on how to grow networked learning operations such as the Open University (forty years young) and the Virtual Universities of major corporations to provide local access to world class learning opportunities, for all age groups and walks of life, without the need to live away from home for months or years on end.


To provide internationally recognised skills


Most of the skills in growing demand in the global knowledge economy are internationally tradable. The governments of the East are looking to mix and match the best of what is already on offer to enable their students, of all ages, to rapidly acquire the skills in current demand. Meanwhile the governments of the West are used to doling out funds levied from captive taxpayers to enable academic committees to adjudicate bids from their peers to develop new courses, qualifications and materials. And sometimes the results really are excellent.


A consequence has been the popularity of professional qualifications developed and quality controlled in the UK and then packaged for delivery around the world. This is especially so with regard to those which also act as feeders to UK universities where students will be mentally stretched. Trust in the independence and rigour of British accreditation processes is particularly important in nations where the children of the elite are treated with undue respect, or the rigor of local examinations is suspect. Britain is one of the few cultures in which the children of the elite are compelled (often by their social inferiors) to demonstrate that their work is indeed their own and worthy of its marks.


However, government pressures to increase the number of domestic students without providing the necessary funding is causing a polarisation between those happy to cut their domestic student intakel, because it no longer covers its costs, and those on the slippery slope.


It need not be that way.


Instead of targeting to send the majority of teenagers away from home to spend a couple of years at university (the traditional English middle-class post puberty ritual of kicking the fledglings from the nest) government should aim to have most of the workforce (all ages) in world-class life-long learning programmes, tied in to internationally recognised qualifications.


Given that the workforce is increasingly mobile, geographically as well as across trades and professions, those programmes need to allow students to mix and match material, including residential modules for that which is best done face to face or requires supervised practice or assessment, from around the world.


The monitoring and accreditation of global update programmes is not only an export earning business in its own right, it is also an opportunity to upgrade the content of domestically delivered courses to ensure that these too remain world class.


Networked learning, including the use of distance learning, courses and qualifications, interspersed with residential modules, is becoming a major source of revenue for leading Colleges and Universities around the world. IMIS and its members have done considerable work with regard to skills development in the UK and overseas and believe that all Governments, not just that of the UK, need to work with their local education and training Providers (both public and private), Professions and Trades Unions to:


·         reduce the after-tax cost of professionally recognised training

·         improve local student access to world-class courses and qualifications

·         remove barriers (organisational as well as funding) to local participation in the development and support of global learning networks


The value of tax breaks for training


In 1996 IMIS, then IDPM, prepared a number of ideas for the then Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer to use tax breaks to encourage training. These built on research into what actually impacted the decisions of employers and individuals and included exempting trainees from national insurance and income tax for the time spent under training to industry and professionally recognised standards, as well as the ability to offset personally funded training, including in preparation for career change, against tax.  Some of the ideas are now being piloted but the UK is almost unique in requiring most individuals to pay for technician and professional level courses out of after tax income and in taxing employees under training as though they were fully productive.


Moving from consultation overload to market research into needs


Research for the 2002 E-Skills Summit organised by IMIS and CPHC (the Conference of Professors and Heads of Computing) found over 1,400 advisory groups competing for employers’ time to help plan courses or curricula, to help assemble bids for public funding or to help adjudicate such bids. Consultation overload leading to a sharp reduction in employer input has helped compound the lack of relevance of many UK public sector skills programmes.


Only 7,000 UK companies have more than 250 staff. 27,000 have 50 to 250. 1.2 million have less than 50 employees and there are 2.8 million sole traders. Few are active in any professional body, trade association or trades union, even if they are members. The identification and implementation of workable solutions to their needs therefore depends on changing from  “consultation” to the use of well structured market research


Bridge the gulf between public and private sector 


One of the main contributions of good e-Learning materials is to reduce the off-the-job time necessary to acquire and demonstrate new skills but we have yet to find ways of bridging the gap between employers happy to pay for a 4 day £1,500 private sector course and cheaper public sector courses taking a couple of days a week for six months to cover the same ground.


While home-based and workplace learning are suitable and desirable for many, it is important to remember that there are limitations to the value of e-learning. Much learning is communal or requires tutorial and technical support to be fully effective. Also for many of those in the most deprived areas, particularly in inner cities, the home may not be a safe learning environment.


Small firms and individuals need “Community Access Points” providing supported, local and affordable access (through playgroup, school, college, library, museum, community centre, home, workplace, hospital, prison, retirement complex etc.) to world class, life-long, education and training content. That means budgets for support (and in deprived areas security), plus routines for access to chargeable (some of it highly charged) material and services, whether paid for by the individual, by a local or national employer or out of public funds.


Global Learning Lifelong Learning Networks


Such centres need to be linked to a much broader exercise to ensure that local Further and Higher Education institutions are included in international lifelong learning networks which bring the graduate and professional development and workforce-updating programmes of the professions and trade associations alongside the alumni operations of leading universities and the training programmes of major employers and their suppliers. The driving force behind the growth of such networks aim is the need to develop and sustain operations which will maintain and validate skills over time while generating the funds necessary to support trustworthy accreditation as well as world-class content.


Given growing workforce mobility the aim should be local access to local, national and global networks which enable the garage mechanic in Dolgellau (Wales) to be mentored from Sunderland (England) or Seoul (Korea) and the Civil Engineer on site in South America to “attend lectures” in Cambridge (England or Massachusetts), in much the same way as the staff of Rolls Royce, BAe, CISCO or IBM can already follow their update programmes, where-ever they are in the World.