Skills Devolution – Dividing Opinion or Delivering Opportunity?
The national landscapes of policy and practice in the realms of further education, higher education and skills have become especially volatile, uncertain and complex spaces in recent times, says Mandy Crawford-Lee, Director of Policy and Operations, University Vocational Awards Council.
Against a backdrop of broad political changes, the UK Government has initiated a large number of skills and educational reforms which are shaking up the national picture with the aim of generating longer term economic growth and supporting social mobility.
From Augar to Richard, from apprenticeship levy and devolution, to a review of post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below to a review into higher level technical education, the same themes emerge: How can we better address the needs of learners and employers?
How the education, training and skills system plays out at local level
Making sense of this landscape is the West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s Future Ready Skills Commission which has come about at a time when Government is making a more sustained commitment to devolution in England, including devolving skills powers and funding.
Its aim is to influence the national devolved approach with a chief interest in how the education, training and skills system plays out at local level with particular reference to the Leeds City Region (LCR) as the main case study.
I am delighted to be one of its Skills Commissioners representing higher education providers from my perspective as Director of Policy and Operations UVAC, a leading independent body for the field of higher education, skills and work-based learning in the UK with more than 90 HEIs in membership.
I also happily sit alongside other national representative bodies when, it is fair to say, we are more used to engaging in the vocational and technical education and training debate where our respective views are noticeably polarised and the language territorial.
So how is the Skills Commission brokering greater cooperation between us?
Well, firstly it recognises that people have genuine and passionate beliefs and will not change their views readily; but that there are also areas of common concern and interest.
Secondly, it accepts that the amount of skills budget to be devolved, on its own, limits the opportunities for transformation especially as each facet of the skills system has its own problem of fragmentation and competition which can act as a brake on local collaboration.
But ultimately it acknowledges that devolution can present a significant opportunity, not to acquire specific powers and budgets from central Government, but to influence the way organisations, sometimes on opposite sides of the debate concerning priorities for skills investment, can come together to define and implement local solutions.
Since becoming a Skills Commissioner I can see the positive effect of working with local representation from LCR and national interests in creating a new energy, a new narrative, around England’s long experience of reform and development in apprenticeships now partnered with unprecedented change in its vocational and technical education for more than a generation. And that new narrative is attempting to be both radical and bold to have the necessary impact on policy making.
HE engagement in apprenticeships, technical and professional skills
From a UVAC perspective I think it is important to ensure that universities and higher education providers remain a recognisable partner and interested stakeholder.
It is also important that the Skills Commission recognise that skills should not be considered in isolation from knowledge exchange, inward investment and business development.
Rather, now is the time to accept that the norm in UK skills delivery is being challenged. A new eco-systems is being formed where different ways of working are sought, and where new ideas are introduced, shaped and implemented.
In my view, the future for HE engagement in apprenticeships and the technical and professional skills system is positive if we ensure the employer remains central to developments and they are unhindered in deciding where to influence or invest in workforce development.
Blueprint for an education and skills system at local level
I also think on the basis of employer need we can all collectively work to support the development of work-based progression routes from entry and intermediate-skill level roles to higher technical, managerial and professional occupations as part of the Commission’s aim to develop a blueprint for an education and skills system that can contribute to the outcomes needed at local level.
While the Future Ready Skills Commission is still at an early stage of its review it has raised a number of important issues about how reduced inequalities and improved quality of delivery, including outcomes, can be achieved. There are already a number of promising future directions.
Mandy Crawford-Lee, Director of Policy and Operations, University Vocational Awards Council