“Is our education system fit for purpose?” is a question that everyone in political life should regularly ask themselves. The pathway from school to work is ever-changing because our job market is constantly evolving and skills employers’ needs are transforming with it.
That’s why techUK welcomed the chance to give evidence to the House of Lords’ Economic Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into the economics of higher and further education and showcase the work the tech industry is doing to ensure that young people today get the skills needed for tomorrow.
The tech sector is at the cutting-edge of the changes in skills needs. The demand for highly skilled tech workers to fund the UK’s rapidly growing tech sector is increasing. In response to a techUK survey in 2014, 93 per cent of its members said that the gap in digital skills was having an effect on their business, with 50 per cent saying that the impact was significant. While recent figures by the NAO suggest that gap is closing, job creation in the sector still outpaces growth in those signing on to maths, computer science or physics courses.
Digitisation also means that demand for digital skills is increasing across all jobs, throughout the economy. Research by the Good Things Foundation in 2014 suggests that 90 per cent of jobs now need digital skills, and increasingly that means more than a basic understanding. While the tech sector is leading the demand, this is no longer simply a tech issue.
It’s easy to assume that a committee of the House of Lords is not going to be at the forefront of thinking about how tech is affecting future skills needs, but the reality is that the committee is serious about determining what policy solutions will work, and, crucially, whether the traditional view of higher and further education is right for the modern world. Interestingly, the committee was keen to explore whether a tertiary education loan, available for anyone to use to retrain over their lifetime, might provide an element of the solution to the challenge of supporting lifelong learning.
However, there are still significant elements of the government’s skills agenda that are in need of reform. Coordination needs to improve between government departments so that the positive initiatives from the Department for Education, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, are brought together, with Cabinet level leadership, ensuring the entire education system has digital skills at its heart.
The apprenticeship levy also needs urgent rethinking. As the committee heard, tech businesses support apprenticeships as a credible route to a good well-paid tech job. Yet, the levy’s rigid approach risks diverting funding away from training that might actually provide the best routes to getting people skilled or retrained for future jobs. Moves to allow companies to spend 10 per cent of their levy on helping smaller businesses within their supply chain to fund apprenticeships are welcome but this needs to go further, allowing businesses to support different types of training, from apprenticeships, to short-module skills development courses and upskilling for those looking to return to work after a career break. Evidence is mounting that the government recognises the need for change, and techUK hopes urgent action is taken to ensure the apprenticeship levy becomes an incentive to invest in skills, not simply a tax on businesses.
Finally, while companies are doing amazing work in supporting training, it is vital that our further education system has the support needed to provide highly skilled, continuous training in tech for teachers. Training must increasingly become a partnership between workers, employers and teaching institutions, and, for us to deliver the education system we need for the future, every part of that triangle must operate at the cutting-edge. When the House of Lords publishes its final report, I very much hope that it marks the next step on the road to meeting that challenge.
Giles Derrington, head of policy, techUK