Introduction

On 23 January 2017 the Prime Minister, Theresa May, launched the Government’s modern industrial strategy - aimed at improving living standards, increasing the nation’s productivity and ensuring growth is shared across the whole of the UK. The Green Paper “Building our Industrial Strategy” sets out the Government’s view on why a modern industrial strategy is needed and contains a number of proposals to address the areas where the Government believes the country is falling short. The Government has identified ten pillars it believes are important to drive forward its industrial strategy across the entire economy and two of these will be particularly of interest to education institutions, namely developing skills and investing in science, research and innovation.

Developing skills

In this section the Government states that whilst the UK has some of the top universities in the world and a larger proportion of its population have degree-level qualifications than most of its competitors, technical education has been relatively neglected. The Government believes that “a bewilderingly complex array of qualifications, some of which are poor quality, makes the system hard to use for students and employers” and consequently the UK has a shortage of technical-level skills and ranks only 16th out of 20 OECD countries for the proportion of its population with technical qualifications.

The Government has identified a number of key issues that need to be addressed, including significant problems with basic skills; a shortage of high skilled technicians below graduate level and shortages in sectors that depend on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills.

The Government’s proposals to deal with these challenges are as follows:

1. Action to improve basic skills

The Government is to explore how to support FE Colleges to become centres of excellence in teaching English and maths, spreading teaching and curriculum best practice, as it believes has been happening successfully in the schools system.

2. The creation of a new system of technical education

The Government believes it needs to “create a proper system of technical education” such as exists in Germany and Norway, which will sit alongside the academic track, and will in particular benefit the half of our young people who do not do A Levels or go to university and those parts of the country where more people take a technical track.

To achieve this the Government wishes to reform traditional further education into a new system of technical education meaning the following changes:

• Creating clear, high-quality routes for technical education.

The Government says it will create 15 core technical routes which will start with high-quality two-year programmes for 16 to 19 year olds and extend to the highest skills levels, leading to full professional competence in a number of defined occupations. The intention is that students will be able to progress on these routes either through an apprenticeship or through college-based provision. The aim is that the first routes will be delivered in September 2019, following design and development of the new qualification requirements by employer panels.

• High-quality technical education providers with excellent training.

The Government states that a high-quality technical education system needs high-quality resilient colleges and other providers to deliver it and this will represent a major endorsement of the crucial role that FE colleges play in the economy and will result in a major development in what FE colleges teach, with the opportunity for more training at higher levels and wholly new qualifications designed to meet the needs of industry. The Government says it will work with the sector to explore ways to attract more industry specialists to work with and in the sector to increase the quality of the training.

• Higher-level technical education and new Institutes of Technology in all regions.

A key part of the Government’s proposals revolves around the creation of new Institutes of Technology which will increase the provision of higher-level technical education. The Government envisages that a person could, for example, study a level 3 (A-Level equivalent) at a local college before moving on to study a higher-level technical qualification at an Institute of Technology in a nearby city.

There will be the creation of a clear single framework of approved technical qualifications at levels 4 and above, based on standards developed by employers and overseen by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. The intention is that this will allow young people who have studied for technical qualifications for full time education to progress to higher skill levels.

The Government will provide £170 million of capital funding to deliver its commitment to create a network of Institutes of Technology, tailored around the needs of employers in local areas.

• Ensuring technical education routes are demanding.

The Government points out that FE students currently receive fewer than 17 hours per week of tuition over a 36 week teaching year while programmes in higher performing countries have nearly twice as many hours. The Government is going to review how best to deliver the increased level of ambition it has for new routes, including ways to drive up quality and make the new routes more demanding. It is also going to review the current loans system for technical education for those people aged 19 or older and the option to create maintenance loans for technical education.

• Creating a course finding process for technical education similar to the UCAS process.

The Government are going to explore how to give technical education students clear information and better support throughout the application process, with a similar platform to UCAS, which will make it easier for students to compare options in technical education and higher education.

3. Addressing STEM shortages

The Government has committed to make Britain the best place in the world to study maths, science and engineering and believes maths free schools have the potential to drive up standards in the subject. The Government says it will consider how to enable this model to spread and deliver benefits for mathematics education in the wider community and will seek partners to open mathematics schools of this kind across the country.

Additionally, the Government recognises that there has been a 19% increase between 2010 and 2016 on UCAS acceptances for full time undergraduates in STEM subjects at higher education. The Government refers to the importance of support in this area as evidenced by the subsidy it has paid to HE institutions by HEFCE to incentivise provision of high-cost mostly STEM subjects and the Government says it wishes to encourage the education sector to increase opportunities to grow STEM subjects even further.

Investing in science, research and innovation

The Government states that it will substantially increase investment in research and development and ensure that UK research continues to be world class and in order to achieve that will provide an additional £4.7 billion of funding by 2020-21.

The Green Paper seeks initial views on the priorities for this increased investment and that UK Research and Innovation (which is being set up by the Higher Education Research Bill) will consult in more detail on this.

The Green Paper does, however, set out some examples of what increased research and development funding could allow the Government to do including:

• Keep improving how world class research is translated into commercial outcomes. The Government suggests here that it could look to expand successful mechanisms such as Higher Education Innovation Funding, which supports universities to patent their discoveries and work with local businesses, or expand Knowledge Transfer Partnerships which place PhD students into companies. The Government says this would allow universities to provide greater support for their local economy and small businesses.

• To capitalise on local strengths across the UK. The Government comments that at present 46% of Research Council and HEFCE funding is spent in Oxford, Cambridge and London and the Government could look at creating new funding streams to support world-class clusters of research and innovation in all parts of the UK, whether they are led by businesses or universities.

• Build a pipeline of talent for an innovative economy. The Government believes that demand for higher-level qualifications is growing strongly but is concerned that existing funding programmes for PhDs and post-doctoral researchers are heavily over-subscribed. The Government will therefore consider with stakeholders the best way to substantially increase the number of PhD and research fellowships in STEM subjects.

• Ensure that the UK attracts top international talent. The Government says that the presence of academic “stars” acts to pull in other researchers and private businesses and that other countries have active programmes to attract leading academics who can anchor strong departments. The Government says it could explore a similar programme for the UK.

The Green Paper is a public consultation which runs until 17 April 2017. There are 38 questions in the Green Paper, including a number on the topics of developing skills and investing in science, research and innovation, and the Government welcomes comments from anyone with an interest in the issues being considered, as part of a broad discussion on the approach and ideas set out in the document.

Whilst the bulk of the initial coverage of the Government’s proposals has focussed on the creation of the new Institutes of Technology, the Green Paper has implications for all areas of the education sector and, as a result, the outcome of the consultation and the next steps will be keenly awaited.