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Professor Josie Fraser: Skills and Training reform - 'The devil will be in the detail'

Comment Central
September 17, 2021

With the Government's Skills and Post-16 Education Bill continuing its way through the committee stage of its passage through Parliament, and the third reading due to take place in October, we spoke to Professor Josie Fraser, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the Open University. Professor Fraser gave evidence to the Education Select Committee's adult skills and lifelong learning inquiry last September, which led to the production of a white paper on the issue earlier this year.

With levelling up a key part of the desired legacy of the current government, skills and training will play a key part in any success of such an agenda. As such, it will be interesting to see, broadly, if the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill will improve the provision and quality of skills training in the United Kingdom. Professor Fraser feels it is currently difficult to say with any certainty whether it will be a success, but that if it is, the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) will be key.

She feels the Bill is a massive opportunity to address the decline in lifelong learning in England. It should be seen as part of the jigsaw needed to underpin skills training, as well as an overarching policy and funding framework to deliver meaningful lifelong learning.

Prof. Fraser: At The Open University, we strongly support the Bill's objectives to "make it easier for adults and young people to study more flexibly allowing them to space out their studies, transfer credits between institutions and take up more part-time study". But will it? That, we don't know at this stage. At the time of writing, the Bill is still going through its parliamentary stages so the jury's out as to whether, and by how much, it will improve provision and quality. Key elements in the Bill, such as the LLE (which enables access to the equivalent of four years of post-18 education for an individual to use through their lifetime – this could be more modular learning as well as full years of study and will cover higher technical and degree levels) are scant on detail. The specific design features of the LLE and how it will work in practice will be critical to its success.

Part of the bill is a greater involvement of local employers in determining the provision of training in different areas, do you think an employer-led approach is better able to address the skills gaps in local areas?

Prof. Fraser: It is essential that we have an approach that brings providers, employers and key elements of the local skills and economic ecosystem together. We've been keen to reiterate that there needs to be a wide definition of what 'local' means. By that, I mean that the Bill ensures that the role played by providers without a local bricks-and-mortar presence in a particular area is taken into account in local skills improvement plans (so called LSIPs). If you take the OU, for instance, we have students in every single Westminster parliamentary constituency, and are the largest higher education provider in 63 (20 per cent) of the 314 English local authorities. The flexibility of the OU's learning model, and our open access ethos, means we are a natural complement to more local providers, particularly in relation to disadvantaged learners and where there is limited face to face higher education provision.

Whether the Bill will change existing preconceptions a drive up the rates of young people taking up apprenticeships and technical qualifications remains to be seen, but does Professor Fraser feel, given her interest in that aspect of the Bill, that the LLE will do enough to ensure adults have access to academic and/or technical education?

Prof. Fraser: It is essential that it does but, we don't have the detail yet about the LLE to know if that will be the case. For the LLE to be truly flexible and lifelong, then it must support and incentivise the merger of vocational and academic pathways: a linear approach would fail the individual, the employer and the economy. Flexible and transferable skills and pathways are needed to help people move forwards as well as sideways, equipping them with what is needed for the future. At the OU, we talk about the climbing frame being just as important as the ladder. We continue to urge for real ambition from government with the LLE as a fundamental reform to the current system rather than a bolt on. Again, the devil will be in the detail. Will all students be able to access exactly the same support for fees and living costs regardless of how they choose to study: modules or full qualifications; part-time or full-time; face-to-face or at a distance? That's the type of approach needed if we are really to put the individual at the heart of this and give them maximum choice over what is right for them.

The digitisation of the UK economy and the need for green jobs will require widespread and major reskilling of the existing workforce; does the Bill place enough emphasis in delivering skills in these areas?

Prof. Fraser: It absolutely needs to and, as an academic whose career has centred on the advancement of STEM skills, I believe this to be critical. We've been talking to business, sustainability and digital entrepreneurs at the OU recently to identify the skills and jobs forecast to be of vital importance to UK economic growth in the coming years, with roles such as sustainability officer and digital content strategist featuring in the top five. But it would also be short sighted to focus solely on a STEM related skill set. Much analysis and insight has also identified the significant and growing shortages in interpersonal and core management skills such as critical thinking, creativity, negotiation, communication, teaching and training.

Going back to the design of the LLE, it's also important that it removes barriers for people to upskill and reskill based on the post-18 study decisions they made 5, 10, 20 years ago. The so-called ELQ rules (that prevent you from accessing student loan funding at equivalent or lower level to previously undertaken) must be removed, otherwise how do we help the geography graduate to become a nurse or the Spanish graduate to become a data analyst?


Comment Central was setup in 2016 by William Walter, the founder of Bridgehead Communications

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