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May 17, 2022updated 25 May 2022 5:50pm

Government and industry must unite to tackle UK digital skills gap

Leading charity and IT executives told Tech Monitor’s inaugural Digital Responsibility Symposium about what measures are needed to close the digital skills gap.

By Ryan Morrison

Ten million adults in the UK lack basic digital skills, according to recent research from the Lloyds Banking Group. Another report from Citizens Advice reveals that approximately 2.3 million households are also struggling to pay for internet access. This crisis in digital inclusion comes as an increasing number of basic tasks need to be carried out online, pushing those who lack digital skills further out into the margins of society.

These issues and more formed the centrepiece of discussion at Tech Monitor’s inaugural Digital Responsibility Symposium on 5 May. Here, charity leaders and senior IT decision-makers debated possible solutions to some of the most urgent questions surrounding the provision of IT equipment to those that need it the most, as well as how best to train those individuals who have thus far proven unable to access online services effectively.

The lack of access to devices and the internet was put in the spotlight in a panel discussion entitled ‘Tackling Digital Exclusion’. The discussion, and all the other sessions from the event, are now available to watch. Register here to watch the full panel on demand.

Millions struggle to access online services

Delegates heard from Helen Milner OBE, chief executive of the Good Things Foundation. The charity’s goal, explained Milner, is to not only educate deprived individuals in using online services, but also ensure that they remain connected to such networks by providing them with access to an internet-connected device. 

This has been practically achieved by the Good Things Foundation working with electronic refurbishing company Reconome to build the UK’s first-ever National Device Bank, which distributes mobiles, laptops and desktop computers donated by businesses to individuals who otherwise couldn’t afford to pay for them. The charity also works closely with a network of online centres across the UK to train individuals in how to use these devices, in addition to providing its own free online learning platform.

Delegates then heard from TalkTalk’s chief people and procurement officer, Daniel Kasmir, who recounted his work in providing internet access for those unable to afford to get online during the pandemic. His main conclusions from that experience were stark: in short, that the divide between the digital haves and have-nots is “increasing, increasing and increasing.”

UK digital skills gap and the cost of living crisis

Kasmir added that the cost of living crisis afflicting the UK economy is only making it harder for the digitally unskilled to get online. “It’s a little perverse,” he said, “that as people are having hard times and they need to get out of trouble by looking for new jobs, the ability to have internet access is becoming a big, big problem.”

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Kasmir said it is not only incumbent on the telecoms sector, but industry at large, to unlock digital mobility. In short, companies need to acquire a greater understanding in how people can most efficiently access online services. Whether or not internet access becomes a human right is the purview of the state, said Kasmir, but providing opportunities for as many people as possible to continue “accessing the internet on a regular basis is becoming absolutely critical”.

CTO of Times Higher Education, Freddie Quek told delegates about his personal efforts in broadening access to devices during the coronavirus pandemic after seeing how hard it was for his children to get an education from home. Demand for efficient and workable networking solutions was so great in those frantic early months, said Quek, that IT leaders felt like they were being hailed as heroes for facilitating remote working solutions that today might be seen as rather basic.

Register here to watch the full panel on demand.

Quek added that IT professionals have the expertise and the means to help people without access to devices. First and foremost, this includes identifying devices considered obsolete for office use and making them available for those individuals who cannot otherwise afford purchasing their own computers or tablets. For his part, Quek recently started a campaign that has seen technology interest groups representing some 130,000 members working together to shorten the digital inclusion gap in the UK. 

Societal responsibilities

Kasmir told delegates the drive behind digital inclusion should form part of a broader corporate agenda of just “doing the right thing”. He added that TalkTalk has had a very specific, targeted local approach in this regard, including subsidising internet services for those in need where it can.

Additionally, said Kasmir, “we’ve done quite a lot of work with care leavers,” reminding delegates that an estimated 10,000 people leave social care every single year. All of them require digital skills to thrive in today’s job market. “If they’re not online, if they can’t access the labour market. Then their ability to join in, to become economically independent, diminishes very, very, very quickly. We want to make sure that those people are connected.”

Quek added that technology industry leaders need to use their expertise and means to meet a wider responsibility to society. Companies need to consider more carefully how their apps  are designed, how easy it is to access information and making sure nobody is disadvantaged when it comes to accessing services essential for everyday life. “We are making the assumption that [the] devices that we have, whether it is a tablet or not, will be a one size fits all for everybody, [which] is not right,” he told delegates. As such, Times Higher Education is working with the Voice Academy, BCS, IT Poverty Alliance and other IT leaders to create a catalogue of personas that define what is known about each segment of users.

The effectiveness of these corporate and charitable initiatives would be complemented by a coherent and comprehensive digital inclusion strategy from the UK government, said Milner, who added that she’s seen plenty of appetite for such leadership from business leaders across the board. Despite this, it’s something that the Good Things Foundation chief said has long been promised from Whitehall but never seems to materialise. “I would see something that is concrete,” said Milner, and “not just about warm words.” 

Register here to watch the full Digital Responsibility Symposium on demand.

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