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10 June 2021

Net Zero Skills by 2030?


Nick Petford
Vice-Chancellor, University of Northampton

Following on from a panel session at the recent Access to HE Conference, Nick Petford talks more about the importance of skills and the implications for students and their progression to graduate careers.


The Government’s Skills and Post-16 Education Bill was a key focus of the Queen’s Speech last month and has, quite rightly, received a significant amount of media coverage. So, let me start with some quotes:  

  • ‘Fundamental changes have been made to the way post-16 learning is funded and planned in England.’
  • ‘The White Paper recognises that current structures are a recipe for confusion, duplication and frustration, with too many bodies involved in planning and funding post 16 provision.’
  • ‘Skills Action Plans have been drawn up which set out to develop the regional skills base, in consultation with a wide range of partners at national, regional and local level, to exploit potential for innovative, business-led working, and to devise strategies to meet local needs.’

All that sounds fine - except these aren’t from the 2021 White Paper. They’re from a report dating from 21 May 1998 - 23 years ago, on the relationship between TECs (Training and Enterprise Councils) and the proposed Regional Development Agencies, both now defunct.

Depressingly, it refers to an earlier, similar White Paper on skills. Scroll on eight years to 2006 and we find Lord Leitch’s report on skills needed to maximise economic growth, productivity and social justice. Again, no real follow-through. It seems to me that policy reinvention, not sustained action, is the defining characteristic of UK skills agendas. Replace the various acronyms (LLE with LSC’s), then these reports all have a similar feel and tone, two decades and eight general elections apart.

Why is this?

Perhaps we need a more disruptive and imaginative view of the skills landscape. I do absolutely support an increased focus on lifelong learning, and the Lifetimes Skills Guarantee, to develop the kind of workforce needed to help our economy bounce forward. But financial incentives must be supplemented by new ways to make FE and HE more attractive, and responsive, to mature learners. Perhaps this is where we have been going wrong?


The technology exists now to do this, that is the legacy of COVID-19 - but on 11 May the Financial Times reported that UK employers currently lose £2 billion per year in unspent apprenticeship levy funds. So, something is clearly not quite right.

Digital transformation may hold the key. The Open University pioneered such an approach back in the 1960s and 70s, an achievement sometimes forgotten. Part of their success was drawing on newly accessible technologies - television and then video recorders.

The opportunity now is to use gaming technology to develop flexible, portable learning routes - for example, Access to HE through Higher Apprenticeships, building an ecosystem of learning pathways and credit transfer from Level 3 to Level 8 - a skills Spotify model, if you will, menu-driven and where adult education is provided at the convenience of the consumer not the supplier.


Two recent documents published by QAA could be highly influential and enabling in this respect. The Higher Education Framework for England: Advice on Academic Credit Arrangements, which complements established practice in UK universities, and Making Use of Credit: A Companion to the Higher Education Credit Framework for England shows how credit can be transferred within the system along the lines suggested.  

This aside, I see two challenges.

One for UK universities is that the current funding model has led to highly competitive behaviour, effectively backing universities into a corner when it comes to U2U collaboration and sharing of resources for teaching and learning. But sharing can be done. One area where collaboration works well is in research, where consortia of regional universities collaborate with industry to mutual benefit. Similar ways to incentivise teaching collaborations are needed.

The second challenge is that we need a more attention-grabbing and compelling vision, and language, to spotlight the importance of skills.

Arguably the biggest agenda to capture the public imagination from a low base is climate. Imagine if climate change had been called ‘weather swap’ - would it have had the kind of impact it enjoys? And the language is evolving to up the ante - crisis and emergency have replaced change to build a sense of urgency. But tens of thousands of people without adequate skills for work is also a looming crisis. Without a motivating and emotionally resonating language as a start - something more compelling than ‘skills for jobs - and, a highly ambitious target - Net Zero Skills by 2030 - we risk missing the boat again.

Thinking along these lines, interesting analogies with Net-Zero Emission targets emerge - do we want to reduce, remove or offset skills gaps in the economy? And in what sectors and geographies?

To conclude, imagine a checklist, universally agreed by Government, universities, FE and business, for a rigorous and clear, UK-wide, Net-Zero Skills plan under the umbrella of ‘Levelling Up’. The skills roadmap should include milestones and what policies and placemaking are needed to support it, along with monitoring and review systems needed to remove, reduce or offset skills gaps, in order to build back effectively. Without this, the risk is yet more policy recycling.