The Prime Minister's Skills Funding Review goes well beyond "mere" funding

Ten days ago the Prime Minister took time out from Brexit to deliver a blockbuster of a speech on the need to reform the funding of Higher Education . The reactions from the Universities and Colleges were predictable and link back to the comments made when she first said there would be a review.  The BBC report of her speech and the reactions to it similarly concentrates on what will happen to University fees. Since then we have had mounting attacks on the life styles of those claiming to run their Universities as globally competitive businesses, while distancing themselves from the financial pressures on their staff, let alone on students. Meanwhile the CBI and others claim that “Freedom of Movement” (whether from India and the Philippines or the EU) is essential to enable business to import the staff with the work ethic that our schools have failed to instil let alone the talent that our “world class” Universities has failed to imbue with the skills they claim to want.

What we have not had is any comment on the fundamental nature of the review the Prime Minister actually announced. 

The political challenge which led to the review can be summarised quite simply: the voting patterns behind the 2016 referendum and the 2017 General Election mean it is no longer politically acceptable for the UK to rely on imported talent for the skills needed by employers today, let alone in the future, while saddling those entering the world of work with debts of up to £57,000. Tinkering with current funding levels or structures is not enough. Studies of current skills shortages or future skills needs to enable current planning/funding structures to work less badly are not enough. A thorough review is needed.

Technology is not only changing the skills in demand at an increasing pace. It is also changing how education and training are being delivered around the rest of the world – cutting the elapsed time from identifying raw talent to revenue earning (albeit within an ongoing education and training programme) from years to months, weeks or even days.

Hence a prime reason UK FE/HE delivery costs and fee structures are out of line.

I am therefore delighted that the call for a rethink goes well  beyond new sources of funding for current structures.

It embraces the means of encouraging and publicising the full range of alternatives to  continuing to rely on half our teenagers being willing to commit to working towards full time, debt funded undergraduate degrees.

These include:

  • employer-driven graduate and post-graduate apprenticeships
  • graduate conversion for those who discover they have made the wrong choice
  • workforce updating
  • returner programmes
  • harnessing  the talents of currently unemployable NEETs.

The aim of the review appears to be to allow “markets”, alias students and employers with well-informed and genuine choices, to drive the direction of travel and enable providers (including Universities and Colleges) to respond accordingly.

Those concerned with Digital or Cybersecurity Skills, who believe that all they need to do is focus on lobbying DDCMS and its Digital Skills Partnership Board or the NCSC and its Education and training initiatives  should read the full terms of reference and note that the review reports jointly to the Department for Education and the Treasury

The review will focus on the following issues

1. Choice and competition across a joined-up post-18 education and training sector:

• How we can help young people make effective choices between academic, technical and vocational routes after 18, including information on earnings outcomes and the quality of the teaching they receive.
• How we can support a more dynamic market in provision, taking into account reforms already underway, whilst maintaining the financial sustainability of a world-class higher education and research sector.
• How we can encourage learning that is more flexible (for example, part-time, distance learning and commuter study options) and complements ongoing Government work to support people to study at different times in their lives.
• How to ensure the market provides choice with higher-level degree apprenticeships and shorter and more flexible courses, in particular accelerated degree programmes, and supporting innovative new institutions that can drive competition.
• How we can ensure that there is world-class provision of technical education across the country including through the new Institutes of Technology.

2. A system that is accessible to all:

• How we can ensure that people from disadvantaged backgrounds have equal opportunities to progress to and succeed in all forms of post-18 education and training.
• How disadvantaged students and learners receive maintenance support, both from Government and from universities and colleges.

3. Delivering the skills our country needs:

• How we can best support education outcomes that deliver our Industrial Strategy ambitions, by contributing to a strong economy and delivering the skills our country needs.

4. Value for money for graduates and taxpayers:

• How students and graduates contribute to the cost of their studies including the level, terms and duration of their contribution, while maintaining the link that those who benefit from post18 education contribute to its costs.
• Ensuring that funding arrangements across post-18 education and training are transparent and do not act as barriers to choice or provision, considering how best to promote institutional efficiency and value for money for students and taxpayers.
• How the Government and institutions communicate with students and graduates around student finance, ensuring this communication is as clear as possible (consistent with the relevant legal requirements) about the nature and terms of student support.

How did such profound review come about and why have so many missed the implications?

During  the closed sessions at the 2017 Conservative Party Conference the relaunch of the Conservative Policy Forum was announced. There were “robust” discussions on its role and priorities, with a clear desire among many for a return to the role of its predecessor “The Conservative Political Centre” which Mrs Thatcher (at least in her early years) used as one of her key sounding boards. I will not comment on what else was  said, or not said, in a closed meeting but the first CPF briefing after the conference was on Youth Issues: “Time for a new deal for a new generation“.

That brief included reference to the Sutton Trust material on the value of a degree compared to an apprenticeship which I subsequently quoted in my November blog on “Who speaks for digital employers on their skills needs” . When I wrote that blog I had in front of me the material being used to prepare one of the responses to the CPF briefing. By the time CPF published its summary of responses  I had already been involved in helping organise a workshop to look at the practicality of using the Grids for Learning (who provide secure Internet connectivity via JISC/Janet for most UK schools) to carry the information necessary to enable pupils and their parents to make well-informed choices – the first of the issues to be addressed in the review. I hasten to add that I had no inside knowledge other than from discussions at the Party Conference which “told me” this was an idea whose time had come. More-over the Prime Minister once chaired a Local Education Authority and was therefore likely to be listening.

On February 14th, a few days before the announcement of the review, WCIT (the IT livery company) hosted the second quarterly review of the Plymouth Cybersecurity Skills Partnership (on which I last blogged before the first quarterly review). On 1st March the report of the second review was e-mailed to all DPA members , partners and observers registered for the Skills Working Group. Those present at the review meeting agreed to organise a tightly focussed “proof of concept” for not only using the Grids to carry content but to promote access among the target audiences. The aim was to demonstrate practicality before the new DfE geographic careers hubs are operational and success (in attracting talent to the employers sponsoring the “proof of concept”) soon afterwards. The expectation would then be that other groups of employers (national and/or local) would use the processes (including for security, probity and quality control) and the bandwagon would roll.

Those interested in participating should contact the DPA for detail but are warned to be ready to open their wallets. This is not a cuddly study or talking shop. Like the work on the BSI Age Verification PAS (and implementation technologies) carried out over the past couple of years by members of the Digital Policy Alliance Age Verification and Internet Safety Group, it is a partnership of equals to demonstrate the practicality of Government policies on which their is all-party, pan-sector support.  The role of DPA has been to bring players together to suggest what government could and should do – and what industry could and should do in support.  A selection of players have now agreed to put their money where their mouths were.

As soon as I have their agreement I plan to blog on their plans.

And I would like to conclude with a lesson for the lobbyists who have yet to even understand the profundity of what was announced by the Prime Minister. 

My very first blog for Computer Weekly, back in 2007, was titled The silent majority gets what it deserves, ignored.  I later refined the message. Professionals who wish to do their public duty and a help improve policy in the areas they think they understand should be active along all the channels to which they have access. Including those of the party of  their choice.

I have been promiscuous from the beginning of my “political” (alias public policy) career. In 1978 – 9, as a levy paying member of my Trades Union I was on the TUC study into the impact of New Technology reporting to the Labour PM, Jim Callaghan, as the same time as serving on the study team reporting to Sir Keith Joseph. I was also on the BCS Professional Board and School Committee. I lifted the idea of a Government funded computer in every school by a given date and sold it not only to both Conservative and Labour Parties but also to the Civil Servant writing the DTI brief for who-ever won the next election.

Hence the programme for a microcomputer in every school by 1982 -(IT year).

I had the advantage that I was a known quantity, some years earlier I had managed the DTI-DoE-ICL Water Industry Computing Development Plan which reported to the Civil Servant concerned and was no longer working for a supplier. I was a Corporate Planner for the Wellcome Foundation helping ride shotgun, inter alia, on our global Computing and Telecommunications strategies (which gave me information on what was happening around the world). I was therefore trustworthy – unlike those working for UK suppliers or the UK sales arms on international suppliers. More-over my director allowed me ten days a year “public service” after I ceased to be a member of the Royal Naval Reserve (for which I had also been allowed ten days a year).

Today I have a similar objective to the micros in schools programme. I would like to ensure that who-ever wins the next election, (and it may be sooner than anything of us think), will use the Grids for Learning and ISC/Janet (because they already exist as not-for-profit procurement and support co-operatives) to help transform not only UK careers advice but the education system as a whole, in co-operation with international (not just UK or EU) employers, training providers (commercial as well as public sector) and technology suppliers.

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