Setting the UK Skills and Employment Agenda for the next decade

On 23rd February I am due to chair the next progress review of the Conservative Policy Forum Employment and Skills National Discussion Group.

The trigger for the formation of the group was a warm-up meeting for the Conservative Party Conference on October 3rd on “Making a reality of lifelong training”, during which we heard:

The estimate for new digital skills over the next three years is about the same as the entire output of higher education.

and

The nature of knowledge volatility is such that no strategy can cope. The only capable mechanism will be a disintermediated market between those with aspirations and those with the training products to meet them that moves as digital speed

On 25th November the briefing meeting for the initial discussion group leaders agreed to focus on producing ”immediate” results by March 31st on issues that could not wait, while forming teams to set longer agenda for a relaunch, under new leadership after the local Government elections in May.

On 20th January the first review meeting agreed a series of actions for review on 23rd February . None was partisan. Some are potentially controversial but do not divide audiences along party lines. They do not set left against right. The divide is between those who believe that Haldane Style hierarchies of experts, advising Government Departments and Agencies, can cope with the pace of change and those who do not.

But what should replace those hierarchies?

The pace of change varies. Basic disciplines commonly change little, if at all over decades. Demand for application skills can, however, change fundamentally within months or even weeks. More-over most emerging skills can be defined, acquired and accredited to the same timescale, given the necessary processes.  And those processes are commonly international rather than national, let alone local.  Meanwhile demand and delivery are increasingly either local or non-geographic (i.e. on-line).

That makes for “challenging discussions”.

I am therefore delighted the group has been set no terms of reference or constraints other than the vision and values for Conservative Policy Forum Groups as a whole, plus some obvious due diligence constraints to ensure balance and good conduct.

Vision and Values

The vision is: for the UK to be a world-leading country based on proven conservative values, equipped to meet the changing social and economic circumstances of current and future generations, that fairly enables all to thrive, regardless of background.

[My expectation is that the only “proven conservative value” that might cause problems with members of some other parties is a belief in “freedom of choice”. And my personal experience has been that arguments over the limits to freedom of choice, over centralisation/decentralisation and over regulation/deregulation are commonly more vigorous (and rigorous) within the party than between conservatives and members of other parties. The differences between the parties are commonly to do with priorities rather than values]

The values are:

  • openness, inclusivity and evidence-based

We recognise that policymaking works best when it is “flexible and innovative, questioning established ways of dealing with things, encouraging new and creative ideas” and “open to comments and suggestions of others.”[1]

We accept that the more our discussions are open and inclusive, the more they will lead to better policy outcomes; greater legitimacy to make hard choices; enhance public trust in government and democratic institutions; make governance more inclusive; help counteract polarisation and disinformation; and provide a long-term vision on policy issues.[2]

Crossing Boundaries

The Conservative Policy Forum also has a unique ability to cross departmental boundaries and make recommendations to Number 10 and to Ministers to instruct co-operation across these to help make existing policies work better, before considering new ones.

Most all-party and non-partisan groups, including APPGs, shadow departments and work through lead officials and/or ministers. When an issue crosses the boundaries of responsibility of the “sponsoring” department they lose effectiveness. Thus DCMS may have the policy lead on cyber and/or digital skills but DfE and BEIS control the mainstream channels for delivery and funding via their own hierarchies of agencies and regulators.

Those with practical experience will know how difficult and frustrating this can be. The rate of churn among officials, let alone ministers, means that there is rarely the continuity necessary achieve results within 3- 5 years, let alone the 3 -5 months necessary to respond to changes in demand for digital skills. I had hoped that the innovations made (at the behest of Treasury) for the millennium bugbusters’ programme would lead to permanent change but these were firmly resisted by DfE because they would have more than decimated its supply chain.

Hence the need to use both partisan and non-partisan channels and use “coalitions of the willing” to co-ordinate and demonstrate agreement between left and right, centralists and devolutionists, traditionalists and innovators.

The plans for review on 23rd February will include:

  • To help employers understand what is already happening and decide which programmes and initiatives will help meet their objectives and deserve their participation and support, including those which link welfare to work to careers pathways. See here for background on the non-partisan programme and an invitation to participate.
  • To help meet (or extend) the deadline for new on-line processes to “prove” the right to work in the UK and extend these to cover the I in 6 (I in 4 in many rural and coastal areas) without a UK passport. See here for details, including of the CSTF event on February 22nd to brief employers and politicians on the potential and need for action. Note that this coincides with the lunch hour of the SASIG Skills festival on the same day.
  • To call on the Department of Levelling Up  to fund, lead and implement guidance on how to use current programmes (e.g. broadband vouchers) in co-operation with DEFRA, DfE, DCMS and BEIS. This is expected to cross-link to plans for a hackathon to improve access to the many semi-incompatible materials and careers portals.
  • How to turn IR35 from a problem into an opportunity – not just in the light of the recent NAO Report but looking forward to a world in which home-based technicians and professionals may work simultaneously for multiple clients/employers around the world.
  • How best to organise discussion on the role of Universities as local, regional, global lifelong learning, training and skills hubs on that which will have most impact on UK competitiveness (international and national as well a local) among the various approaches (geographic, sectoral, apprenticeship, SME support, education outreach etc.) taken by different Universities. The group is likely to begin by looking at how Universities decide where and how to focus their efforts.

Longer Term Issues

Discussion on how best to address cross-cutting skills (such as Digital and Cyber) where confusion over definitions and objectives leads to lack of scale and joining up will be postponed until after the event on March 10th to introduce the Cybersecurity Council to the UK Financial Services industry: Taking the Lead: Ensuring London has the World Class Cyber Skills it Needs .

The focus is then expected to be on the use of mainstream channels to help employers understand what is relevant to their needs and inform providers (and funding agencies/regulators etc.) accordingly, via their own choice of channels (trade associations, professional bodies, certification and qualification bodies). This will include ensuring that Government (officials as well as ministers) appreciate not only that many (perhaps most) “standards” are set globally with UK inputs, not by intra-UK organisations operating within intra-UK constraints, but also that this gives global opportunities.  The problems here are not unique to cyber and/or digital and one of the issues will be to improve cross sector co-operation.

Introductions have been made between construction industry recruitment, skills and training organisations and employers looking for digital infrastructure construction and maintenance skills. I do not currently, however expect an action plan before the end of March. The same applies to Green Skills.

Plans for longer term exercise to look at the “Right to Practice” (in regulated industries as Financial Services or Health and Welfare) and/or the ability to “prove” Skills/qualifications/experience will be reviewed after a presentation on March 8th organised by one of the non-partisan participants of the new BCS CAS portal. I expect this to link to plans for one or more University-based hackathons to develop and test the inter-operability APIs to make it much easier to access and use the growing number of on-line course, materials and skills databases, passports and records.

Those interested in looking at how to ensure UK education and training are globally competitive are not expected to agree an action plan until after the above presentation of the new BCS CAS portal. It is hoped that this will then provide a catalyst to bring together those trying to make sense of the current landscape of initiatives, around the world, not just in the UK with their different timescales and ambitions. I very much hope that this will lead to the necessary critical mass of support (from employers and recruiters) to pilot the JANET and JOHN concept (secure inter-operability for careers and  course  material and records across the networks run by JISC, the Grids for Learning and others).

[1] Better Policy-Making, 2001, Centre for Management and Policy Studies

[2] An introduction to deliberative democracy for members of parliament, 28 September 2021, Westminster Foundation for Democracy

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