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Is skills education higher education's problem?

Rod Bristow

Rod Bristow

President
Pearson UK & Core Markets

The focus on skills as part of a successful industrial strategy is very welcome indeed. The discourse on our lack of investment in skills in the UK dates back as far as the Great Exhibition of 1851, so while we should welcome this focus, we should not underestimate the scale of the task, nor the need for collaboration between government, education providers and employers.

 And because the global economy has moved on a bit since 1851, let's also not underestimate the importance of defining what we mean by 'skills' in the modern economy. Employers today pay a premium for graduate employees and tell us to beware the false dichotomy between vocational and academic education. Yet we see a narrative developing that not only discourages many young people from valuing higher education, but positions the growth in higher education as one of the reasons that we have a skills problem.

 Apparently, we are told, our skills crisis is a direct result, not only of too few people studying skills before and after age 18, but also of too many people going to university, after which they do jobs for which they are over-qualified. It's true that not everyone going to university does the course that helps them into the best career. But it is wrong to infer that the growth in higher education is intrinsic to the skills problem. Universities after all, are not only groves of academe; they are also energetic workshops of engineering, design, technology and so much more. At its best, higher education provides cognitive and practical skills that help our young people and our economy to thrive.

The narrative confuses two important employment-related education pathways.  Both pathways are critical to helping young people succeed and critical to the UK economy. One pathway leads to specific jobs and occupations such as heating engineer, laboratory technician, electrician or plumber. The other pathway forms the basis of careers including design, engineering, business or information technology. Each is important, yet the confusion between the two means we are failing to focus adequately on both. The Skills Plan, for example, focuses almost entirely on occupations, not careers.

While I strongly disagree with the assertion that too many people go to university, I think the industrial strategy can provide a launchpad for more flexible learning patterns for students beyond Britain's well-established and enduring full-time, undergraduate degrees. I hope we will see more jumping off points, allowing students to head into the labour market after one or two years, as offered increasingly by universities and colleges through BTEC Higher National Diplomas. This growth in demand for career related education also explains why one quarter of young people going to university do so with a BTEC National. BTEC is a careers-focused qualification that develops both cognitive and practical skills; many excellent degree programmes develop both sets of those skills too. 

I welcome the focus on skills, but we should beware of focusing only on jobs and occupations. Important though progression directly into a skilled job is for many, we also need to prepare young people for broader careers in which jobs, occupations and personal aspirations change over time. The global economy needs technicians –​ but it needs technologists too. In fact, in one of the world's most effective education systems, Singapore, the career education pathway between 16-19 is carved out separately and provided by Polytechnic Institutes, which equip students for progress to university or into a job. This career pathway complements the job-specific occupational pathway provided by Singapore's Institutes of Technical Education.

And of course, career education is also an idea embraced by great universities. When it comes to our career related skills deficit, higher education – far being a part of the problem – is potentially a critical part of the solution. That's a message we should be shouting from the roof-tops before the current confusion between job specific and career related skills drowns it out.​

Every conversation I have with friends and colleagues across the sector tells me that HE is ideally placed and primed to deliver on the promise of the industrial strategy. Given the many challenges we face in the UK – and the world – in 2017, I'd be interested to know if you share my optimism.

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Tony Nedderman
Tony Nedderman says:
10 February 2017 at 12:37

Yes, East Asian career guidance based systems such as that of Singapore can clearly be beneficial. A greater associated problem though is to instil the requisite work ethic and HE sets little in the way of a practical example in this regard.