Last week, the Queen’s Speech set out the government’s legislative programme for the next session of Parliament, with two bills in particular likely to have a direct impact on the higher education system. In this blog, I frame my comments around the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which is situated alongside the government’s commitment to ‘Level Up’ the regions, and in particular the proposal, as set out in the Queens Speech, to bring more jobs and training to people where they live. In the Bill, there are new plans to introduce greater funding flexibility and a lifetime skills guarantee. Universities have welcomed the intention to provide a more flexible approach to student finance to support part-time, flexible learning and mature students.
The links between productivity and skills, workforce planning and training are well-established, with evidence that successful economies and places need to develop more relevant skills over the ‘life course’, use skills more effectively in both work and society, and strengthen the governance of skills systems. It is suggested that Covid and the economic crisis will have a profound impact, as technology continues to transform the skills that employers need in the future, and where workers with ‘lower qualifications’ are more likely to be impacted by labour market changes. The more we can design and implement a skills ‘system’ that is flexible, agile and supportive of individual and local circumstances, the better chance we have of tackling social and spatial inequalities, and matching more people in Yorkshire to good, well-paid jobs.
While skills and training are crucial interventions, supply-side measures alone are insufficient to narrow spatial disparities, especially for those places still managing the legacies and impacts of de-industrialisation and enduring lower levels of employment and higher unemployment. Furthermore, these places have seen significant economic and labour market damage from the downturn, and as the crisis recedes they are expected to lag further behind the rest of the country.
In an article in last week’s Sunday Times, David Goodhart argued that levelling up will only work if the ‘brightest’ have a reason to stay in their home towns. He inferred that something of a rebalance should take place between the volume of individuals attaining academic qualifications and the experience of vocational education acquired via apprenticeships and T-levels. Quoting an Oldham FE College Principal, who called for industrial towns to be taken more seriously, the article identified training and retraining as being of particular value, but Goodhart also recognised the need to generate greater demand in local economies through capital investment and infrastructure.
The Sunday Times article followed a recent workshop YU convened to examine new analysis into the graduate labour market in Yorkshire, and the specific contributions that YU’s diverse range of HE institutions make to graduate employability. The findings from the study reveal that:
- The graduate labour market nationwide and in Yorkshire has been significantly less-affected in the medium- to long-term by the pandemic, compared to lower skill sectors. With the exception of the creative industries and some skilled trades.
- All YU institutions are central to the Yorkshire labour market. They are inextricably linked. Graduates working in Yorkshire by and large work in the region because they have chosen to remain in the region, and they get the jobs they want.
- ‘Stayers’ – classed as individuals who moved to Yorkshire to study and stayed for work – are likely to be in business roles, particularly with SMEs. Yorkshire has a lot more ‘stayers’ than other regions; it ranks high in graduate retention.
- In terms of the relevance of the pre-pandemic to post-pandemic graduate labour market: the only difference is not ‘what’ skilled jobs graduates are doing but ‘how’ they are doing the work.
- The overwhelming majority of people working in education, health, IT, financial industry and engineers still retained the jobs they worked in pre-pandemic, but many of them are now doing it in a blended way.
The availability of talent helps to attract business investment. If we are to increase opportunities, and create more and better jobs, we need to utilise all the talents at our disposal, including those people originally from Yorkshire, and also those who have come to live, study and work in the region. This means having an effective and well-resourced post-16 education and lifelong learning system, underpinned, where appropriate, by strong collaborations between FE and HE. Pursuing an either / or approach will produce limited outcomes for all, and hinder efforts to level up.