Towards a sustainable Skills (including Immigration and HE funding) policy

The Browne report recommends a radical simplification of the HE funding system, so that fees reflect costs. This is the day before the deadline for submissions to the BIS consultations on “Sustainable Skills” and a “Simplified FE Funding System“. I was pleased to see that the our submissions were compatible with his recommendations, even though the questions asked by BIS were very different. Now comes the task of bulldozing the obstacles to change out of the way and turning our current crises, of quality and relevance, not just funding, into shared opportunities.

The Information Society  Alliance Submissions on Sustainable Skills and FE Funding are on the Skills Working Group website and follow the structure requested by BIS – answering questions that appear to miss the scale and nature of change needed.


The next step will be to restructure the material collected so as too spell out what is needed by way of political action, on tax, immigration, research and technology transfer policy, not just reforming the FE and HE funding and qualification quangos. Then comes the task of seeing if their is the political will to make the changes necessary.


We are not faced, as some critics of Lord Brown allege, by a twin track system. There are already many channels in the global skills market. Few of those who have graduated in recent years, let alone those leaving school today, will follow one career for life. The paths they follow will vary by discipline, industry and geographic location – at least as much by their economic and social background – just as they did in the UK before the growth of our current national FE and HE funding regimes based on bids for funding from Whitehall, allocated by committees of the great and good. Unfortunately, most of our FE and HE institutions are now stuck, sinking into the ooze of muddy domestic backwaters, supposedly no longer fit to swim in the mainstream of change without a lifejacket that commonly the features of a straightjacket and about as much buoyancy. 


How will we reconcile general political agreement on the need for government to support local equality of opportunity (whatever that means) with employers’ needs to have access to world-class skills (support techicians not just post graduates) to be globally competitive?


How will will get our introverted educational funding agencies to recognise that the rest of the world regards them and most (but not all) of their measures of success as irrelevant to the modern world?  They have been coconed too long in the adulation of those who must kow tow to them for funding and honours.


I have no illusions as to the difficulty of the task. I have looked at the issues off and on for nearly forty years. My first attempt was with one of my Business School Projects.  “Why Computer Systems” fail was published by Computer Weekly in 1973 in ten articles at £15 per thousand words – good drinking money – better than any academic journal. This entailed a study of the economics of the training market to discover why manpower planning exercises did not result in action and why the training necessary to avoid failure was not booked, even when on offer.  In 1982 the politican version of a paper I produced for the Univac Annual Conference for the Technical Press sold out. It was on the educational implications of a world in which expert systems and networks were commonplace and was entitled:  “Learning for Change”.


I talked about the need to move on from ideas of jobs for life and  “the state subsidized middle class post-puberty rite of kicking the fledglings from the nest”, by sending them to study expensively at the far end of the country in once-off experience. I called for us to to instead equip everyone to be ready to change career at least two or three times in their lives mixing distance learning and residential modules as and when necessary or convenient.


That approach has since been the basis of multi-billion pound operations like the University of Pheonix and is a major revenue earner for nations like New Zealand and Canada. Several UK Universities and Professional Bodies now make a good living in this area but their materials, courses and accreditation services are rarely available in the UK. 


The Alliance first found consensus among its members in 1997, with “Reskilling Europe for the Information Society”. We then tried several times to get political action. We even had it announced by a Minister in 2002. But he was shuffled two hour later and his officials put it back to the bottom of the heap – as one of the previous ministers “enthusiasms”. Finally a workshop of 20 HR Directors, representing over 80% of the then software and services supply side, warned that they had given up on taking such attempts seriously – because the officials had no intention of responding to employers needs – and it was easier to tiptoe away – moving functions off-shore – than to make a fuss.


Last week, when I circulated the draft Alliance submission, I was therefore delighted to receive a note from the HR Director of a major supplier to government saying that he would help work for action, provided that a couple of his peers would join in. One of the key points of agreement across employers is the need to link the immigration and skills agendas as two side of the same problem.


It may be helpful to finish this post with some of the key points from the Alliance submissions:


“The Consultation [Sustainable Skills] paper begins with statements as to why skills are important and lists some of the reasons why employers and individuals are not investing   in learning and skills, such as fear of poaching, credit restraints, reliance on migrant worker, uncertainty of return and lack of confidence on the part of low-skilled returners. The “principles” fail to address any of these. 


There is a need to begin with a clear policy objective such as:


To ensure the UK has the world class skills base necessary to attract, create, sustain and grow the wealth creating industries of the future.


In that context social inclusion is indeed highly desirable, but is secondary to removing the current incentives for employers to export jobs or import workers when they cannot locally obtain the skills they need, when and where they need them, whether by retaining their existing staff or by recruiting well-educated and motivated recruits. More-over 80% of the workforce in 2020 has already left school or college and/or graduated – with skills that will atrophy and become obsolete unless practised and kept up to date.


With that in mind, the “principles” should be to:


1.1) enable market forces to work by reducing the after-tax tax cost (both time and money) of regularly and routinely updating the skills of the existing workforce (at all levels), recognising that basic disciplines (academic, professional, technical) change slowly while the half-life of applications skills is often 18 months or less


1.2) encourage the provision of local access to world-class education and training infrastructures (including networked partnerships of schools, colleges, universities, research centres and private sector training operations) that will deliver modular courses, materials, work experience and skills accreditation when, where and how individuals and employers wish 


1.3) reward individuals and employers who invest in the skills of themselves and their staff, including those employers who confine their use of immigrant labour to international career rotations, to the transfer of world-class skills to their UK employees and to the creation of UK  employment opportunities.


1.4) focus publicly funded training for first entrants, or those excluded from the labour market, on skills in demand within the individual’s travel to work radius and involve local employers (including public sector) in selection, training, work experience and motivation. 


1.5) make it very much easier for those who cannot find work locally to relocate to where it is available, including the provision of residential facilities linked to work-experience programmes with potential employers.


1.6) ensure that accreditation routines (for courses, qualifications, training providers and individuals) are designed primarily to help employers and students make well-informed choices that are relevant to their business needs and career aspirations. [any other objectives are secondary].


1.7) require those running publicly funded training programmes to provide information to prospective students as to which employers have recruited from those programmes or, in the case of new programmes, are looking to do so.


The policies that result from applying the principles will have failed unless they also lead to a greater willingness on the part of employers and individuals to invest more (time as well as money) in the acquisition of new skills.




2.1) There are serious questions as to whether the structure, terms of reference and methods of working of bodies like the Higher Education Funding Council for England or the Technology Strategy Board are a major part of the problem: using committees of formidably intelligent advisors to try to predict the future and/or adjudicate bids from those bidding for funds to meet future needs. Meanwhile those producing the technologies that will shape the future have little or no time to respond to their consultations. The head of educational and academic relationships for one of the world’s largest ICT suppliers logged over 3,000 requests to supply representatives for UK groups planning courses and curricula – most of them duplicating effort at the national level and failing to address local variations. 


2.2) There is an urgent need to reduce the load on employers by grouping such requests and routing them through appropriate channels, local or national – for example those sector skills councils that can demonstrate the support of employers (of all sizes) across the industries they serve and of the relevant trade associations, professional bodies and trades unions. Public sector organisations, particularly Local Government, are often the largest employers in any given geographic location and should be encouraged to play an active role in the relevant sector skills councils. The skills councils need to be given the authority to do the job properly, including vis a vis HEFCE and other funding agencies and government as an employer.


2.3) There is an urgent need to reduce the pressure on departments to choose between cutting costs at the expense of quality and focusing on overseas students in order to survive as a world-class skills supplier. Complex funding structures which try to average fees and funding across courses that have very different delivery costs need to be replaced by structures that better reflect the cost of delivery and enable public funding to follow the student. These should include vouchers and learning accounts, whilst also drawing in funding from those willing and able to pay for themselves. Those who cut delivery costs by replicating courses and modules across multiple locations and institutions should be rewarded, not penalised.




3.1) The main savings are in the overhead costs of bodies like HEFCE, including the cost, including time, of bidding for public funding and of adjudicating the bids.


3.2) A first target should be to reduce the cost/effort spent bidding for public funding to duplicate what is already available elsewhere. This should include encouraging arrangements to re-use existing material, courses and qualifications, providing local access to that which is successful in other parts of the country or overseas. That will require fostering a “market” mentality


3.3) A second target should be to encourage shared access to existing facilities, and investment in new ones, including across public and private sector education and training needs for all ages: e.g.  …