Removing Digital from the Pointless Ponzi Skills scheme

The Election Campaign revealed the unpopularity of the Student Loan scheme with students and parents. The Apprenticeship Levy scheme, at least in its current state, is equally unpopular with employers. At the time of the election I summarised the references to skills in the campaign as a competition between a manifesto for skills and jobs and one for debt and unemployment.

Today the Prime Ministers former advisor has described the loan-funded, fixed standard tuition fee, full-time degree system as a pointless Ponzi scheme . Yesterday it was announced that Learn Direct, the largest supplier of Government funded apprenticeship programmes is being wound down after a damning Ofsted review.

Meanwhile Brexit and the pressure to reduce reliance on imported skills have added urgency to the  need to bring the UK’s obsolete and introverted education and training systems into the 21st century, reforming approaches to academic funding mechanisms dating back to 1917 – when we were supposedly behind Germany in the scientific research needed for modern warfare (e.g. poison gas).

Today the availability of MOOCs and modular materials, courses and assessments, from a wide range of suppliers, for most of the skills in current demand has changed the way leading employers develop the skills of their existing employees and new recruits: cutting “time to competence” from years to months, months to weeks and weeks to days. This, in turn,  has changed the economics behind the decision to poach/import supposedly skilled staff, as opposed to redeploying existing staff or training raw talent. It is increasingly often quicker and cheaper to train your own, to known standards, that to retrain those who skills, you belatedly discover, exist only on paper.

Nearly 30 Universities are now working with employers on degree-linked digital apprenticeships via the Tech Partnership alone. But many current apprenticeship programmes are constrained by the need to fit UK-centric, semi-academic funding frameworks. Most digital skills are global and it is essential that public funds are used to improve access for the disadvantaged to the internationally recognised certifications recognised by employers and regulators.

The Institute for Apprenticeships is working on streamlining the processes for the grant and levy system and wants these to be employer driven – not set by intermedaries. At a recent meeting, Digital Policy Alliance members, including some of main suppliers of globally recognised digital qualifications, volunteered information on how they consult employers on new qualifications and, equally importantly, regular reviews and updates, as well as on how they quality control delivery and certification. Hopefully it will be possible to organise similar inputs for those deciding how to use the income from Tier 2 visas in skills shortage areas to encourage employers looking to import skills to reduce the need by improving local supply to meet their needs.

We need exploit the opportunity to identify and publicise practical ways forward before policies for the next election campaign are confirmed. We need to ensure they are much better, and better publicised, than those for the recent snap election

Subsequent to a meetings with the Minister and the IfA team, a draft Digital Policy Alliance paper was produced on the skills policies needed to create and maintain a 21st Century Digital Infrastructure.   The second iteration is currently being circulated to DPA members in advance of a formal review meeting. A prime focus is on how to ease the pain of transitioning to high quality, degree-linked, digital apprenticeships for the skills in current and future demand: “get three years ahead in your career not a debt and a 10% tax hike”.

The overall objective of the DPA 21st Century Skills  group is “to help pull forward the changes necessary to cater for a world in which demand for basic aptitudes, attitudes and disciplines changes slowly, if at all, but the rate of change in demand for specific skills is accelerating”. The strategy is not just to produce yet more papers on skills shortages – but to actively engage politicians (local and national) and major employers (who are also prestigious research partners) in partnerships to produce and publicise practical results so that consensus can be built around what is shown to not only work but give commercial benefit to those putting in the effort.

Two years ago I blogged on an exercise to brief MPs on the need to look at skills issues through the other end of the telescope and get engaged with local exercises to pull the threads together. Earlier this year the first local skills partnership was agreed, after a meeting to help launch Stem Plymouth (at the heart of the 2020 Anglo-American celebration of the Pilgrim Fathers voyage into the unknown to invent the future they wanted to see). It was then agreed that the initial focus would be on security skills – as the area with supposedly the most critical shortfall.

Four months later, at the formal launch of the Plymouth Security Skills Partnership,  the lead  project, a shared Security Operation Centre which provides supervised work experience for  pupils, students, trainees and apprentices, using leading edge tools on real problems, was live. It already provides a unique (cost and availability to local SMEs) service to help organisation identify which of their clients are at most risk (e.g. the information available to impersonate them, including passwords,  is available on the Dark Web).

It showed that the approach works – given active co-operation between City, University, Employers (both public and private sector) to work with schools, colleges and law enforcement. But Plymouth had a tradition of such co-operation going back over five years (apparently beginning with construction skills) on which we could build.

The report of the launch event, including the discussion of issues arising and lessons learned is being sent to those invited to the first review meeting (on 12th September – during Cyber Security Week) of the Digital Policy Alliance Security Skills sub-group. A key messages is that most attempts at co-operation are blighted by those put political positioning and competition for public funding ahead of delivering results – whether for students, victims or paying customers. The follow up will therefore focus on projects and cities/regions where such rivalry can be avoided.

Those who wish to receive a copy of the report and/or details on the programme to build on success should contact the Digital Policy Alliance.