UK productivity plan analysis and commentary: part two

This is the second in a series of posts which explore the recent budget, focusing on how this will effect employability and the higher education sector. See the first post here: http://bit.ly/1ODzx2C

A highly skilled workforce, with employers in the driving seat
Mr. Osborne opened the skills debate by pointing out the unflattering facts – England and Northern Ireland are in the bottom four countries for literacy and numeracy skills among 16-24 year olds. We also perform poorly on intermediate professional and technical skills, potentially falling behind to 28th out of 33 OECD countries for intermediate skills by 2020. To address this apparent problem, he suggested that we need to reform the secondary and further education system, better utilize apprenticeships, and improve provisions for professional and technical education. Let’s look at the proposed reforms one by one below.

Schools reform
The good news is that according to the government’s findings, more children than ever are now in a good or outstanding school. According to their survey, there are now more than 4700 academies, 254 new free schools, 30 University Technical Colleges (UTCs) and 37 studio schools. The government plans to open a further 500 free schools and ensure that there is a UTC within reach of every city. We certainly welcome government’s expansion plans and drive for improvement, but it is worth considering sustainable this approach is. A closer look at what is currently in place will be required, potentially making the difficult decision to close or merge those that fall behind in performance, in a way that will yield maximum productivity.

Image credit: altogetherfool

Image credit: altogetherfool

The government also proposed that all pupils starting year 7 in September 2015 should study the English Baccalaureate, and they are pushing for new, more rigorous GCSE and A-levels in Maths and Science. At a subject level, Mr Osborne’s focus is on increasing the uptake of STEM subject A-levels, especially by girls. He also proposes that young people without good grades in GCSE Maths and English should continue studying those subjects until age 18. Gradintel recognises the growing demand for the STEM-related skillset among its clients, who are often looking to recruit for IT and engineering positions. But there is also great interest in soft skills and communication abilities, which might not be best developed via STEM routes alone. These skills are an absolute must for positions in sales, marketing or customer service, which still account for a high proportion of jobs advertised on our system. An excessive push in one direction could also lead to scarcity others areas, like social science, arts and humanities. We should strive for diversity instead of pushing STEM adoption to the limit. In that respect, while we like the government’s push for England to have the highest STEM teaching quality by training an additional 17,500 teachers in these subjects, we wonder whether other subjects do not equally deserve increased attention?

It is also questionable whether driving STEM subject adoption through forcing students to keep studying maths for longer (even if they were never particularly good at it and do not wish to further specialize) is the right approach. Our own recruitment experience shows that candidates who often perform well in technical positions do not necessarily come from academic backgrounds in science and technology. It might therefore be useful to allow students more freedom in their subject choices and help them to decide which path to take based on data from employers. Gradintel is certainly well suited to help collect and present this type of data to prospective students and we are keen to co-operate with employers and educational institutions to produce relevant destination statistics for the sector.

We welcome government’s support for England’s teaching workforce to become world class, including a new initial teacher training curriculum and introducing greater flexibility for schools to pay the best teachers more. However, we wonder how this will be measured. In our experience, academic achievements alone are not the best measure of suitability for a job.  Just as many top universities are better at research than teaching, a number of academically brilliant teachers might not have the ability to inspire and engage younger generations. The teacher might have passed all the exams with merit, but if his students are struggling to pass the course, something is not right. If an educational institution was searching for a prospective teaching staff via Gradintel, we would strongly recommend to keep the degree level search broad and instead to target the search profile based on personality attributes needed for an effective teacher. Granted, government’s support for the establishment of a new independent College of Teaching will certainly help raise teaching standards. But to reach its highest potential, we must ensure that the college admits students with the highest potential in the first place, which is not necessarily determined by their past academic record, but rather by what they have done alongside their study.

Apprenticeships
We welcome government’s effort to establish apprenticeships as a high quality training route, where students develop skills tailored to a particular sector, and earn while they learn. We agree that there is a critical need for new technical and professional skilled workers to enter the workforce in the coming years. University is not the right option for everyone, especially if the occupation for which a student wishes to specialise does not require a degree. Apprenticeships have the potential to help such school leavers transition into the world of work more easily, while developing necessary skills in the process.

However, we feel there is a danger in promoting apprenticeships as a complete alternative to degree, when for a number of positions, a university degree has always been, and should remain, a pre-requisite. Mr Osborne’s proposal for apprenticeships to be given equal legal treatment to degrees, so that apprentices and employers can be given confidence in the brand, could lead to unintended confusion. It does not inform student expectations regarding what employment opportunities will be available to them.

Furthermore, there is a risk that apprenticeships will develop an image of business-focussed, applied education, while university degrees might become perceived as a theoretical option that does not apply to the real-world employment market. Such misinterpretation could significantly lower student interest in higher education, leading to a shortfall in the UK’s higher-skill demographics. To counteract that perception, it is important to promote university links with employability. One way of doing this is by institutionalising the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) as a sector-wide initiative. This will help students showcase their verified academic and extracurricular achievement data to employers and other interested third parties. Students could then make that data available via talent platforms like Gradintel, so that suitable candidates can be easily discovered by prospective employers.

As long as apprenticeships keep their original intent to fill the gap in vocational skills, the other measures to popularise them seem reasonable, if a bit disadvantageous for university students. For instance, abolishing employer National Insurance Contributions (NICs) for almost all apprentices under the age of 25 from April 2016 sounds like an attractive incentive for employers. But why would the same kind of exemption not apply to university students under 25 who are looking for summer work or an industrial placement?

Putting the control of funding into the hands of employers via initiatives like the digital apprenticeships voucher is a useful measure, which puts employers at the heart of apprenticeship training. This will be further supported by the introduction of a levy on large UK employers to fund all new post-16 apprenticeships. That model is supposed to enable any firm to get back more than it puts in by training sufficient numbers of apprentices. We find it curious that a similar employer co-funding model has not yet been established by government, for university level education too. Businesses could sponsor students in exchange for work: having them on-duty for short-term work experience, internships or industrial placements, while also actively shaping their academic curriculum in a way that would be advantageous for the company. The more supportive an employer is of university students, the more benefits and tax breaks he gets. Such an approach would go a long way towards re-establishing the pro-business image of universities. That would then ensure that the ratio of students pursuing apprenticeships and HE study will be kept in balance.

Professional and technical education
The government also proposed a professional and technical education system that will provide individuals with clear, high-quality routes to employment. The aim is to simplify and streamline the number of qualifications so that individuals have clear routes of progression to high level skills. Based on general feedback from Gradintel users regarding the complex system of secondary and further education qualifications available on our system, we think this change will be positively received by students and employers alike.

Mr. Osborne suggested refocussing professional education providers from level 2 courses and below, to deliver the higher level skills that employers need. For that purpose, the creation of National Colleges has been announced to provide high-level sector-specific training, while the top performing colleges will be invited to become prestigious Institutes of Technology to deliver high-standard provision at levels 3, 4 and 5 (where university level undergraduate degrees are level 6). These Institutes of Technology are then expected to be sponsored by employers, registered with professional bodies and aligned with apprenticeship standards. We welcome the establishment of an academic hierarchy among professional and technical education bodies because it improves the transparency of available education options. However, it also moves them closer to more established university degree programmes, which could lead to a perception of overlap, so this proposal should be realized with caution.

The government is also making this branch of education more autonomous, by empowering National Colleges, Catapults, and elite professional institutions to design each qualification route independently, alongside employers and professional bodies.

The government wants strong local areas and employers to take a leading role in establishing a post-16 skills system that is responsive to local economic priorities. Local areas will therefore be invited to participate in the reshaping and re-commissioning of local provision. Many colleges will be invited to specialise according to local economic priorities, to provide better targeted basic skills alongside professional and technical education, while the best ones will be invited to become Institutes of Technology. The goal is to put power in the hands of people who are best placed to tailor provision to local economic needs. This local dimension of the educational reform is greatly appreciated by Gradintel, because it will ultimately lead to much more balanced spread of talent across all regions of the UK.

To make the transition from secondary and further education to employment as transparent as possible, the government also plans to improve destination data to enable informed choices. Support will be provided for the development of online portals to present all post-16 learning options to young people in a user-friendly way. Government will be strengthening the provision of destination and earnings data, which will encourage greater collaboration between schools, colleges and employers, helping young people to access the best advice. The Gradintel team understands the power of data in the context of transition from higher education to employment and it is very exciting to see a similar approach being adopted in the further education space.

Read next week for more on how reforms will effect Higher Education…

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