The education and skills system is facing up to the fact that the UK's mountainous budget deficit will lead inexorably to major funding cuts. The relative protection of schools means that reductions will impact chiefly on further and higher education and the intermediary bodies in the skills system. So, what does this mean?
It is tempting to batten down the hatches and continue everything as it was with everyone receiving their share of the pain while hoping that the storm will subside sooner rather than later. The problem with this is that we will all be looking round at the wreckage as we come out of recession, but with little to cope with the new world. This new world will be characterised by new kinds of jobs with fewer needing low-level qualifications and many more than now requiring higher level skills.
There is also still much that is dysfunctional in our further and higher education systems – and it is set to get worse with four bodies expected to replace the unloved Learning and Skills Council. At a time when we all accept the need for closer articulation between education and business, the sector skills councils – our best shot yet at employer-led organisations that steer the skills needs and qualifications of their employees – are under threat of being emasculated by a being reduced from 25 to fewer than 10. One facing annihilation with a budget cut from £16m to £8m next year (and more to follow) is Lifelong Learning UK.
This organisation serves more than a million people, making up 3 per cent of the UK workforce working in the lifelong learning system. It covers further and higher education, work based and community learning, youth work, libraries, information and careers guidance services. These people play an absolutely essential role in helping the rest of Britain's current and future workers to develop their skills, realise their talents and fulfil their potential. It is critical now that we invest in developing the infrastructure to create the conditions that enable our whole society to flourish.
This means that we must do more to prepare the workforce for the future. Now more than ever, the global workforce is highly skilled, fiercely competitive and increasingly mobile. We are still falling behind our competitors in the number and level of qualifications held by our workers. Moreover, we continue to lag behind our European neighbours in the proportion of highly skilled jobs in our economy. The broadening of the EU only serves to increase this competition, and without investment to meet the employment challenges of the coming years we risk falling further behind.
Put simply, we cannot address the skills challenges of the workforce without having the best-trained teachers, tutors, trainers, assessors, managers and leaders in our knowledge infrastructure. What is evident, despite our current troubles, is that we require a step change in attitudes to lifelong learning and a root-and-branch rethink of how we provide education and training.
This includes democratising education so that everyone can benefit from a progressive and flexible learning framework, while developing better routes to the right skills and qualifications to secure, and stay in, employment.
Take two examples. Those now entering post-compulsory education, or engaging in continuing professional development come immersed in a knowledge economy, centred on Google and social networking. They are used to accessing knowledge from a variety of internet sources and, in most cases, contributing to the creation of knowledge through their own online presence. This places them in a different place in the educational process and puts extraordinary demands on the new skills and roles required of their teachers and tutors. Equally, those beginning their skills training in, for example, plumbing will emerge in a world where alternative energy sources such as solar panels and heat pumps will be an important part of their work.
With the passing of the Olympic flame to London in a couple of years, the world's gaze will focus on Britain. A skilled workforce is vital for competing on the international economic stage, as well as in the sporting arena in 2012. To maintain the sporting metaphor – our lifelong learning staff must be ahead of the game if the workforce is to stand a chance of being at the game.
The writer is chairman of Lifelong Learning UKReuse content