How will Covid-19 shape the UK skills landscape?

How will Covid-19 shape the UK skills landscape?

By Abigail Hilditch, Policy Coordinator, NCUB

 

Skills Covid19Starting a new job is always daunting, juggling responsibilities and learning the ropes. New Apprenticeship and Skills Minister Gillian Keegan has only been in post for a matter of weeks, and doubtless, leading UK skills through a global pandemic was not part of her on-boarding process.

Despite the very corporeal aspect of Covid-19, the impact goes beyond the physical and mental health of the population. Economic health is now in question, with experts comparing the effects to the recession of 2008, the crash of 1929, and the post the WW2 period. Workforce ability and resilience play a key role in how the nation weathers this storm. Skills, as an all-encompassing term for building and leveraging capacity, capability, and coordination is potentially far reaching, affecting the UK needs right now and in the years to come.

In the immediate term, medical skills are vital. This is illustrated by the final year medicine and nursing students brought into practice, return of retirees, thousands of volunteers, private and NHS collaboration, and the tireless work of current staff. Medicine is a consistently popular university choice, but it remains to be seen whether the pandemic will trigger a surge in applications, or if prospective practitioners will be put off by the well documented strain these professionals are currently under. The current situation also shows us that whilst qualifications are important, it is implementation of knowledge, willingness to learn on the job, and ability to adapt efficiently to change that will help the NHS and the nation survive this pandemic. Front-line workers have been asked to adopt a mind-set of self-sacrifice, and have followed without hesitation. These are all skills not learnt in the classroom, but in the real world, in experience. Skills should not be seen as only valid when accompanied by a certificate.

"Skills should not be seen as only valid when accompanied by a certificate."

Nursing provision in the UK has long been a sticking point. Boris Johnson’s campaign promise to bring in 50,000 new nurses was a direct consequence of the effect May’s scrapping of nursing bursaries had on training recruitment. As of December last year a £5,000 per year grant was re-introduced by the Government, but this pales in comparison to the 2016-17 allowances of more than £16,000 per year, and the recipients of this new grant are yet to start their courses. Considering the current funding generosity of Rishi Sunak and the Treasury, is it too much to hope that we might see a return of full grants in the future as a form of compensation to the NHS? Will our politicians and education leaders finally learn a lesson on the value of sustainable talent pipelines or will it be the same old lip service? We will see once the dust settles.

When it comes to wider skills programmes, the future is also unclear. The Government published an apprenticeship programme response on Monday 23rd, alongside a letter to providers from Gillian Keegan. However, this appears to have been less than well received by the sector, as the policy states that funding for apprenticeships is to be claimed retrospectively, on completion of training. This means that many Independent Training Providers will likely be unable to provide the training, due to the precarious financial positions they find themselves in because of Covid-19, and so unable to access funding. The longer term impact of this could be catastrophic for the sector, apprentices are employees, not students, and as such can’t easily pause their learning. If training providers fold, apprentices run the risk of being stuck at their current levels. This will drastically reduce the number of qualified apprentices at a time when the recovering economy will need them most. The move to online education seen in schools and universities is also not viable for a wide range of apprenticeships.

Online provision has been a large focus at this time, and will be a steep learning curve for many universities. It will force academics and admins a-like to fully embrace the powers of VLE and video conferencing. But what about the students themselves? This year’s cohort of 18-year-olds are in an unenviable position; stuck between unconditional offers and uncertain predicted grades. Final year undergraduates face a difficult end to their studies, with no formal graduations and an economy in recession. International students will potentially have to rethink their entire course of study, with a possible indefinite return to their home countries.

"The Government needs to take lessons from Covid-19 and ensure that the UK has a properly funded and thought through skills strategy going forward."

On top of all of this, student number caps are set to be introduced for the first time since 2015. This is a bid to ensure stability amongst HEIs, prevent certain universities recruiting extra students to fill potential financial gaps left by international students, and halt the wave of unconditional offers. However, it begs some consideration on what this may mean for the future labour market. Caps were initially lifted to increase the number of highly skilled workers needed in the economy, so how do we strike a balance between stabilising the HE sector and also providing a highly skilled workforce? Whilst this would be an effective short-term measure, we could find ourselves facing bigger future skills shortages than already predicted.

There are so many factors of the skills network that will demand interrogation in the coming weeks, and it is imperative that the Government does not let this sector slip through the cracks. We have been fortunate to be able to rely on the kind-heartedness of former and present NHS workers in this pandemic, but we may not be so lucky in the future. The Government needs to take lessons from Covid-19 and ensure that the UK has a properly funded and thought through skills strategy going forward. It needs to respect the importance of all levels of the skills supply chain and the long-ranging consequences of education funding austerity. Most importantly, it needs to ensure that the UK skills landscape is fit for any purpose.

In the meantime, this is the perfect opportunity for those of us stuck at home to undertake personal reskilling and upskilling. So turn off Bargain Hunt and discover an online CPD course, a skills share community or tutorial on how to make your own toilet paper.

 

Published: 30 March 2020

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