Why the skills debate matters – Short and long term

With plans afoot for the United Kingdom government to review higher education funding, speculation is growing about the recommendations that might result. Could discounted or otherwise incentivised courses be the answer?

Robert Halfon, an influential Conservative MP and chair of the Education Select Committee, has recently added his voice to the debate about the future of higher education fees. He believes that students who take degrees that lead to employment in areas of skills shortage should receive a fee discount. All courses, he believes, should be about high-skilled employment.

To quote his example, he does not condemn courses such as ‘medieval history’ but believes the government should not provide any form of discount to students who take them. Instead, he says, the country has serious skills shortages in healthcare, digital, engineering, coding and construction and students should be incentivised by discounts to take degrees in those subjects.

Parity of esteem for skills-based courses would follow if Oxford and Cambridge universities offered degree apprenticeships.

No doubt Halfon exaggerates for effect. His advocacy for new routes to fill serious skills shortages vital to the country’s future is heartfelt and his championing of universities with excellent employment records for their graduates is refreshing. Yet what is needed is not an either-or approach to how well different tertiary courses prepare students for work, but a more comprehensive review of post-school opportunities.

There are striking examples of ‘traditional’ universities like Sheffield and Warwick with major commitments to apprenticeships and work-based learning. Halfon refers to Dyson, but he could equally praise the extraordinary vision of the founders of a new university in Hereford that is pioneering an entirely different way of teaching engineering intensively, with no lectures and industry placements the norm.

What is interesting about that model is that attitude, ingenuity and drive are the key determinants for entry. Hereford wants ‘passioneers’, not engineers. Students with arts backgrounds will be as welcome as those with a science one. The truth is, we need both and often in combination.

As a country the UK should promote coherent and often regionally-based routes for skills-based education where universities, colleges and employers work closely together to design and deliver courses.

Alternative paths

Opening up the fees debate, by reconsidering the possibility of personal learning accounts which could be used to agreed limits by the student for credits within such consortia or universities, or often both, should be considered.

Taking the famous Californian system – where articulated learning pathways and qualifications are provided between two-year community colleges and four-year state universities – as an example, we need to reinvent the UK’s tertiary education system for the 21st century.

Research-intensive universities and private institutions can also flourish in that eco-system. A fairer funding system for all learners with a transparent and universal tariff system would do much to achieve parity of esteem. Such a system would also encourage flexible and part-time learning, with meaningful compacts between employers and education providers.

It is the most depressing consequence of the current system that part-time student numbers have fallen by 60% and mature student numbers by 40% since 2010.

This is not a fantasy. There are emerging networks of this type already and the Office for Students – the new regulator – has been particularly charged with promoting a workable and effective credit system as well as greater flexibility for students.

The networks are also including schools, academies and university technical colleges so that the imagination of young people can be stimulated from a very young age to consider the beginning of what for many of them will be a lifetime of opportunity and learning.

What are the skills we need for the future?

This is perhaps the most important point about this debate and one that has important implications outside the UK. We are now in what many call Industrial Revolution 4.0 – the digital revolution. We cannot easily predict what skills we will need in the future and what kind of jobs will exist.

While responding to immediate need, we must ensure that our education system is based not primarily on what you know but vitally on developing powers of analysis, critical thinking, systematic enquiry and emotional as well as intellectual insight.

These are the skills that will be in most demand and will enable young people to adapt and continue to learn through what will be for many a working life of great variety and different forms of employment.

The intellectual demands of all tertiary education should be celebrated, not just because the curriculum is grounded in the rather slippery concept of the ‘real world’. For many universities, the most popular student societies are those for entrepreneurs and which provide space and simple facilities for innovation and experimentation. Education is often about peer learning and context as well as the classroom.

Let us by all means praise apprenticeships and professional degrees. But let us also think much harder about the funding and structure of a tertiary system, not only a university system, that can provide the wider skills, the opportunities and the different routes for lifetime learning that our society will need, not just tomorrow but over the next generation

Dr Jonathan Nicholls is director of strategy and policy services for education at Shakespeare Martineau.