Lady Morgan fleshes out her views on the performance of the FE and skills sector in light of the House of Lords Digital Skills Committee inquiry.

The FE sector will be essential if the UK is to become a global digital leader. It has to be there from the age of 16 and throughout life and have the flexibility to support all.

Digital businesses can locate anywhere in the world, and if we fail to provide the right conditions for them to flourish in the UK, the UK will become a branch economy, much less prosperous and influential than it could be.

The sector will also play a significant role in developing specific and high level digital and technological skills, which support digital businesses, with the recent announcement of a National College for Digital Skills in London with support from employers such as IBM, Deloitte and Bank of America.

The Lords’ Select Committee on Digital Skills heard much evidence about skills shortages, at all levels in the economy.

The committee’s report, Make or Break: the UK’s Digital Future, examines how these shortages affect potential employees with a lack of basic level skills, through to top level ‘digital makers’. The development of new tech clusters is jeopardised by these shortages.

However, evidence to the committee showed some systemic problems in the
FE sector.

There is traditionally a low regard for vocational learning that damages the reputation and aspirations of FE colleges.

Over recent years there has been a decline in the number of apprenticeships taken up across all subjects, though this may now be changing.

Currently, a very small proportion of apprenticeships are in the IT sector — in 2013/14 less than 3 per cent of the total number of apprenticeship starts were ICT apprenticeships. Far too few apprenticeships are offered to those under 25.

Firms and employer organisations as well as local authorities and local enterprise partnerships have pointed to a slow and unresponsive qualifications system and the need for ‘root and branch’ reforms.

The way skills funding is allocated is not conducive to targeting FE provision to meet employers’ needs. There is felt to be insufficient specialism — too much of every institution doing everything.

Skills funding needs to be used to rebalance the FE offer to meet employer needs and FE colleges need to be driving this change

These are not all problems that the FE sector can or should solve alone. There is a huge role for increased industry input into all aspects of the FE system.

There is an opportunity for industry and FE to join up and work together to ensure the sector has the aspirations and responsiveness to support the future economy.

For instance, general digital skills could be improved by including a digital element in all FE courses, as well as more specific courses for digital and technology occupations.

Apprenticeships are fundamental to the future economy, and they can help plug the short and medium-term skills gap.

That is why we suggested that a digital element should be included in all apprenticeship schemes, as well as more specialised digital apprenticeships.

There is a need to tackle this negative perception among schools, teachers, head teachers and parents, so that young people in particular view apprenticeships as a viable route to high quality employment.

The qualification and accreditation framework requires greater consistency and longevity. Employer trust in the system will be strengthened by industry-designed and endorsed certificates, delivering the necessary high standards.

There is an important role for government too, in facilitating industry and college partnerships, and in ensuring the skills funding is used more effectively.

Skills funding needs to be used to rebalance the FE offer to meet employer needs and FE colleges need to be driving this change.

The Lords Committee on Digital Skills wants the UK to have a world-leading, responsive FE system for digital skills, brought about by a comprehensive employer-led review of FE.

We heard about examples of good and even great practice, but it is imperative that the FE system as a whole has an eye on the labour market of the future.

FE colleges need to be ambitious about their role going forward — and open to change. This means being agile and able to offer short, sharp and relevant courses throughout working life.