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Skills

Will the UK skills bill help bridge the digital knowledge gap?

Announcements in the Queen's speech on skills have been welcomed, but may do little more than replicate existing schemes.

Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech saw the government announce new laws and reforms to the skills and training provision in the UK, including the introduction of a skills and post-16 education bill to equip Britons with the digital knowledge needed for the jobs that will be vital in the post-pandemic economy. The bill has been welcomed as a potential way to bridge the digital skills gap, but critics say it replicates some existing provisions and that participants in courses could end up being lumbered with substantial debts.

The bill, which will come into effect on 18 May and follows the publication of the Skills White Paper in January, will introduce a new “flexible loan” system designed to promote wider participation in further education in England. It will also give employers a statutory role in providing publicly funded training programmes and will allow the education secretary to have “more powers to intervene in colleges that fail to meet local needs”.

One focus of the new bill is to provide workers with essential digital skills. Despite two-thirds of jobs requiring such abilities, 52% of the UK workforce still does not have them a digital index report by Lloyds Bank found. Another study shows that although the majority of UK employers believe that reliance on digital skills will increase in the future, skills provision in education demonstrates that training in the area is on a downward trend. This problem is exacerbated by a regional bias that concentrates career opportunities in London despite other regions, such as Glasgow, Manchester or South Wales, growing as digital skills hotspots and the advent of widespread remote working meaning location should be less of a factor.

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The government will be hoping the UK scheme can emulate a similar programme in Singapore, where the SkillsFuture national initiative offers Singaporeans of all ages the possibility of achieving qualifications in in-demand and emerging skills across several sectors. The programme, which is heavily subsidised and offers a monthly training allowance, is a collaboration between government, unions, and educational and training institutions.

Mixed reception of the new skills reforms

Technology industry trade body techUK has welcomed the new legislative proposals and the government’s decision to make skills provision a political priority.

This is really the first time that adult learning and skills has been right at the top of the government’s agenda.
Antony Walker, techUK

“This is really the first time that adult learning and skills has been right at the top of the government’s agenda,” Antony Walker, deputy CEO of techUK, told Tech Monitor. “We think there is a huge opportunity for the digital skills and technology perspective because we see huge demand for those skills both within the sector and the wider economy, and we absolutely need to get more people reskilled for those roles.”

Walker added that the lifelong loan entitlement will be key to enabling learners from diverse backgrounds to finance the reskilling process. He added that this initiative cannot be enough on itself, and it will require the government, employers and the tech sector to do their homework so that the courses are provided and funded to meet demand from industry.

However, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has criticised the government’s adult skills plan because of the economic debt it will impose on those undertaking the upskilling and retraining courses. The TUC also condemned the government’s lack of collaboration with unions in the new skills programme.

Last year, the government decided to cut the £12m annual funding for the Union Learning Fund (also known as Unionlearn), a union-organised workplace training and upskilling scheme carried out in collaboration with employers. Unionlearn supported more than 200,000 learners a year and, according to the TUC, it proved particularly successful in supporting workers with digital skills.

A report by the Learning and Work Institute found strong evidence of the economic impact and positive engagement with unskilled or low-skilled adults that Unionlearn provision had. The upskilling provided by the scheme has translated into £558m benefit for employers and an independent evaluation found that for every £1 invested on the fund, there was a return of £12.24, delivering a net contribution to the UK economy of over £1.65bn.

“[Digital skills] is an area where Unionlearn and union learning reps have had a long history of work,” says Iain Murray, TUC senior policy officer. “We still will be supporting Unionlearn reps because these union reps will continue to support workers to access learning and skills, even though the government has cut the funding.”

Home page image of the Houses of Parliament courtesy Lazyllama/Shutterstock.

Cristina Lago

Associate editor

Cristina Lago is associate editor of Tech Monitor.