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The Northern Powerhouse Education and Skills Summit 2022, provided a unique forum to kick start the debate on the impact of the pandemic on those in education, training and employment / skills challenges of the North. The phrase levelling up from the Government white paper has been treated with some skepticism as the latest government marketing strategy. The summit reported that education and skills will be key to this agenda and highlighted the role of Further Education Colleges in particular. Critical to this is investing in the North’s disproportionate groups of young and disadvantaged people. This includes those in the lowest economic brackets, children in care, those who do not have basic English / Maths and those who need childcare support and those with health issues. Supporting   disadvantaged groups will allow them to help bridge the job gaps of the North and enable them to upskill them for the future. The potential for new jobs within digital transformation, green skills and sustainable energy such as hydrogen were also seen as key jobs which we will require as we develop. There are various funding programmes that organisations can utilise to work with Universities to develop new capabilities including the well established, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships.  

The role of Universities in solving these inequalities, current and future skills gaps is also critical. Gaps can also be filled to an extent through careful automation and digital transformation of which Universities play a role in research and development, innovation and incubation. Investing in people and skills including education of full-time professionals would allow further skills gaps to be plugged. At the University of Chester, our real world, skills focused curriculum and impact research agenda is designed  to do that. We have a success history in collaboratively upskilling organisations and professionals through Work Based and Integrative Studies. Our negotiated pathways run all year round and give credit for learning associated work experience and development. We have engaged thousands of mature learners, the vast majority of which would not have attended University without our offer.  

In a world where consumers increasingly require personalised products and solutions it seems strange that education doesn’t generally work that way. Most education is still supplier-driven, including at universities, with courses typically reflecting a combination of the pre-ordained sets of knowledge, skills, and abilities to be achieved by students, and the particular subject expertise of the providers and their academic staff. Essentially, it is a very nineteenth century way of offering provision (at best) to a workforce that largely left behind the standardisation of the Taylorist and Fordist factory decades ago. In our own region, it seems an especially strange way of addressing the dynamic, workplace-driven education and skills needs being identified by the Northern Powerhouse. 

A range of private-sector providers and awarding bodies have recognised this and have moved into the space of bite-sized, flexible learning, micro-credentialing and continuing professional development courses that are rooted in specific workplace issues. Universities may hope that these organisations leave the field over time, but given current societal trends and the present regulatory framework this seems highly unlikely. 

While off-the-peg learning undoubtedly has its uses and is unlikely to die, alternative supplementary approaches are clearly needed. This, of itself, requires some challenging thinking. The traditional view of the academic as the supplier of subject expertise seems inadequate in a society where most knowledge capital now exists in the workplace itself, rather than the academy. This means that to be truly responsive, universities need to be offering flexible and more personalised courses that situate the academic as being a facilitator of learning (the sources of which may be eclectic) rather than a spoon-feeder of expert knowledge that can be regurgitated in examinations. This in turn, rather changes the power relationships that have become embedded in HE over long periods. 

To be fair, a number of universities – including Chester – have attempted to address many of these issues through the creation of more flexible learning frameworks that have moved well beyond traditional modes of learning. They are distinctive and popular with the students and employers that get to know about them too. They have key, distinguishing features that have typically involved: 

  • Allowing students to create their own pathway of learning in negotiation with the university, reflecting their own need and those of their workplace (in some cases negotiated award titles are available too); 
  • Enabling students to import prior credits from a range of relevant CPD/training courses, this being far easier when the pathway is negotiable rather than mapped tightly to a pre-designed curriculum; 
  • Embedding flexible modes of learning so that students can attend face-to-face workshops if they wish, but tailored online learning if they don’t; 
  • Offering the facilitation of genuine, work-based and experiential learning where the workplace itself becomes the curriculum, e.g., both through the recognition of relevant prior experiential learning at work, and through the incorporation of current work-based projects with negotiable learning outcomes, methods of assessment and so on. 

Given this, one way to underpin and encourage the growth of such provision would be straightforward. Indeed, the CBI for one has already called for it. And that would be to allow the Employer Levy to be used for more intrinsically flexible and responsive forms of learning than Higher Level Apprenticeships. The Employer Levy was arguably one of the better education reforms to have been enacted in recent years, but it needs to be released from what many see as the shackles currently applied to it. 

If universities are genuinely to recognise the workplace as a valid form of knowledge generation – and to provide creative and flexible enhancement for this in ways that can make a material difference to students and businesses – then they clearly need encouragement to do so. Otherwise, the old ways of doing things and the power relationships based on them will remain, and an opportunity to help forge a high-skills economy that can respond quickly to eclectic and changing needs may be lost.  

We would be happy to discuss these challenges and the flexible solutions that we have to allow development and upskilling on the job and research, development and funding to allow organisations to thrive. Get in touch with us to discuss: cped@chester.ac.uk

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