A £3.8 billion investment in skills requires a roadmap 

A renewed focus on ‘skills, skills, skills’ may be key to unlocking the levelling up agenda, at least according to the Chancellor`s newly announced budget. Rishi Sunak has pledged a £3.8 billion investment in skills, a considerable sum aimed at bolstering the UK`s creaky adult education sector.

‘We are supporting people to gain the skills they need to secure great jobs’ said Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, ‘our skills reforms and this additional investment will support more people to continue to upskill and retrain throughout their lives and open the door to careers in high skilled industries.’

The government is spot on in terms of the scale of investment required. However, without a proper roadmap to reform, this bold attempt at a ‘skills revolution’ may fail to deliver the changes that are most needed.

Fortunately, the Lifelong Education Commission – in association with ResPublica – is in the process of creating just such a roadmap. Pooling the expertise of 12 leading voices in both the Higher and Further Education, the Commission plans to produce a series of reports into different aspects of education policy over the next 2 years.

The first of these reports, titled ‘The Pathway to Lifelong Learning’, was released last month at the Conservative Party Conference. It offers a slew of recommendations for the government on how to best achieve whole system change in adult education.

Chief among its suggestions was the argument that investment in post-18 Further Education (FE) options should not come at the expense of supporting Higher Education (HE) alternatives for adults. Unfortunately, the Chancellor’s new budget seems to have made this mistake.

Rishi Sunak has said that investment in apprenticeships will increase by roughly £170m by 2024-25, which will take total funding to a record-high of £2.7bn. In addition, £375 million will be channelled into funding technical education for adults, the first step in a £2.5 billion investment in adult skills promised over the course of this Parliament.

This is no doubt a step in the right direction, as it will open up options for thousands of adults looking to retrain in a new profession. However, this extra funding for FE will do little to help those who are looking to retrain in a field which requires university training for entry.

Unless they have ample money tucked-away, or do not already hold a degree, most are unable to meet the considerable costs of a later-life return to university. The upshot is that only those least in need of reskilling are likely to be able to afford it.

This has created a situation in which mature learners are largely confined to a handful of FE options, whilst HE remains the territory of the young and middle-class. Until this imbalance is redressed, lifelong learning will always play second fiddle in education.

One way to address this would be to extend access to student loan entitlements to all citizens, regardless of whether they hold a previous degree. This would mean tearing-up the constricting Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) rule, which currently bars graduates from receiving funding support if they hold a qualification on or below their course of choice.

Accompanying this, means-tested maintenance grants could be offered to mature students who otherwise may struggle to cover their living costs. These measures would effectively level the HE playing-field by removing economic and age-related barriers to retraining.

To create a more accessible and flexible skills system in the UK, the government must go beyond simply pumping money into FE. A targeted reform of the HE sector would open up a raft of opportunities for adult learners that otherwise would be effectively blocked from retraining in very high-skilled professions.

The road towards a full levelling up of adult education could be a long and winding one. Adopting the LEC`s suggestions for reforming HE would be a clear and definitive first step.

Philip Blond, Director of ResPublica and co-founder of the Lifelong Education Commission