Supporting universities could be key to economic and social recovery

“Support for universities means support for businesses and jobs, for key workers, and for levelling up the UK’s towns and regions.” (Universities UK)

Universities have long been positively associated with economic growth, not only for the regional areas in which they are situated but also for neighbouring regions as a result of spillover effects. The total income of the UK university sector has been estimated at around £40 billion per year – 1.8% of national income.

Many universities are important anchors in their local areas, supporting community activity in various ways and working in collaboration with smaller businesses. And they have played a vital role in the response to the current pandemic through medical research, sharing of resources and community wellbeing efforts. 

With widespread agreement over ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom’, it is no surprise there have been calls to ensure investment in this sector is a central priority. In forecasting the potential impact of UK universities over the next five years, recent research from Universities UK suggests that a well-supported university sector could be key to the economic and social recovery from the pandemic.

Supporting people

The Universities UK report outlines the ways in which universities support people, including by providing a pipeline of key workers and enabling upskilling for new jobs. It is projected that by May 2026, more than 191,000 nurses, 84,000 medical specialists and 188,000 teachers will graduate from UK universities. And it is suggested that these are likely to be underestimates. If these forecasts are accurate, the potential for universities to help address the skills gaps and shortages that the UK faces is clear, particularly as nursing and teaching have featured on the hard-to-fill and skills shortage vacancies lists.

It is also projected that demand for higher level skills will continue rising into the late 2020s. In the shorter term, 79% of employers with more than 25 staff anticipate a need for upskilling in the next 12 months, rising to 84% for firms with over 100 staff. No region sees the need for upskilling fall below 60%. In addition to educating students, universities are responding to this need with training and upskilling programmes tailored to employers and the community. Forecasts for each of the UK nations include:

  • universities in Northern Ireland will deliver the equivalent of 410 years of professional development training and education courses to businesses and charities in the next five years (and 90 years’ worth in the next 12 months)
  • Scottish universities will provide 3,490 years of training by May 2026 (over 600 years’ worth in the next year)
  • Welsh universities will deliver the equivalent of nearly 4,800 years of upskilling in the next five years (over 880 years’ worth in the next 12 months)
  • universities in England will provide the equivalent of over 549 centuries (54,936 years) of training by May 2026, and 10,580 years’ worth in the next year alone

As has been argued, “part of the effect of universities on growth is mediated through an increased supply of human capital and greater innovation”. 

Local economic impact

The local economic impact of universities is widely recognised. Universities have consistently attracted funding for local regeneration projects with significant economic and social impacts and the report forecasts that these will have a value of over £2.5 billion in local places across the UK over the next five years.

It is suggested that many of these projects will also attract additional funding from universities and businesses, resulting in even greater local impact.

Universities also have a direct impact on their local economies as large employers. It is estimated that 1.27% of all people in employment in the UK work for a university. Other recent analysis suggests that universities typically support up to one additional job in the immediate local economy for every person they directly employ.

The impact of universities on local procurement is also emphasised, highlighting the example of the Leeds Anchors Network, which is looking at opportunities to direct spending locally.  The report suggests that if anchor institutions in Leeds shift 10% of their total spending to suppliers in the region this could be worth up to £196 million each year.

Collaboration and contributing to research

The report also considers the role of universities in partnering with business, including providing advice/training and enabling cutting edge research and innovation.

It is forecast that UK universities will be commissioned to provide over £11.6 billion of support and services to small enterprises, businesses and not-for-profits over the next five years, ranging from specialist advice, access to the latest facilities and equipment to develop innovative products, and conducting bespoke research projects. It is also expected that universities will attract national and international public funds to spend on collaborative research with businesses and non-academic organisations, estimated to be worth £21.7 billion over the next five years.

The report highlights that this research leads to impact in priority sectors. In the East Midlands, for example, over a third of competitive funding received by research organisations since 2014 was for clean growth and infrastructure projects with businesses, a higher proportion than any other region. In Yorkshire 85% of funding has been for manufacturing, materials and mobility projects, and 53% of funding in London has been in the area of ageing, health and nutrition.

Universities have also been shown to be effective in commercialising their research via spinouts, an area that has a great deal of potential to contribute to economic growth.

Despite all universities conducting cutting-edge research, there are regional disparities in research and innovation investment. And there has been historic underfunding in some regions which has led to inequalities in economic performance across the UK, putting the levelling up agenda at risk. The report therefore argues that “research and innovation policy needs to be designed alongside, and be closely aligned to, local economic development policy.”

Of course, the higher education sector hasn’t been immune to recent financial cuts and the expected losses for the sector are “highly uncertain” as highlighted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

And the recent announcement of the 50% cut to university arts funding will come as a big blow to the already suffering creative industries sector. The decision, made in a bid to redirect spending to subjects considered a ‘strategic priority’ by the government such as medicine and STEM, is a concern if it is to have a detrimental impact on the arts industry talent pipeline.

Final thoughts

Depending on the losses the university sector experiences, it may be that the five year forecasts presented in the Universities UK report do not come to fruition.

However, as the intention of the government is to ‘level up’ and create a ‘place strategy’, surely universities have to play a central role given their huge economic and social potential. And that means investment, not cuts. As the Universities UK report highlights:

“World-class innovation and research assets need support. Training highly skilled people requires investment. Ensuring the benefits of both of these are felt equally around the UK will depend on robust policy and funding decisions.”


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Horizon Europe goes live

Horizon Europe is finally a reality. After months of false starts, soft launches and stalled negotiations, 22 June saw hundreds of funding calls published on the European Commission Funding and Tenders Portal. Researchers, institutions and other organisations can now access the seven-year, €95.5 billion research and innovation programme.

Horizon Europe is the ninth European Research and Innovation Framework programme (2021-2027). In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is one of the key instruments of the European Union’s efforts to steer and accelerate Europe’s recovery, preparedness and resilience.

The initial work programme covers the period 2021-2022 and consists of €14.7 billion in funding, which will be allocated based on competitive calls for proposals.

Around €5.8 billion in total will be invested in research and innovation to complement the European Green Deal and the EU’s commitment to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Supporting the EU’s goal of making the 2020s ‘Europe’s Digital Decade’, core digital technologies will receive around €4 billion over 2021-2022. Finally, direct investments of around €1.9 billion will be made towards helping repair the immediate economic and social damage brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said:

“With 40% of its budget devoted to making Europe more sustainable, this Horizon Europe work programme will make Europe greener and fitter for the digital transformation. Horizon Europe is now fully open for business: I would like to encourage researchers and innovators from all over the EU to apply and find solutions to improve our daily lives.”

Associated Countries: UK in, Switzerland out

Although the European Commission has yet to secure final agreements with non-EU countries on participation in Horizon Europe, a 17 June document revealed a list of 18 countries where association negotiations are ‘being processed or where association is imminent’.

The 18 provisionally associated countries are: Albania; Armenia; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Faroe Islands; Georgia; Iceland; Israel; Kosovo; Moldova; Montenegro; Morocco; North Macedonia; Norway; Serbia; Tunisia; Turkey; Ukraine; and the United Kingdom.

Most notably, while the UK is in, Switzerland has been excluded. Reports cite Swiss government officials as saying the European Commission did not give any notification of its intention to exclude the country from provisional access to Horizon Europe.

Writing on Twitter, Senior Policy Officer at the League of European Research Universities (LERU) Laura Keustermans described the move as not only bad news for Switzerland ‘but also very bad news for everybody involved in EU Research and Innovation’. LERU President Kurt Deketelaere also responded, urging the Swiss Government to work to gain access for the Swiss research and education sector, ‘which benefited greatly from association to EU programs in the past’.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is urging researchers to start applying for Horizon Europe funding, with UK researchers and companies eligible for all Horizon Europe calls, apart from applying for equity funding from the European Innovation Council (EIC). The UK will also have to reach agreement with the Commission on rules for participating in sensitive projects in quantum and space technologies.

Free events mark programme launch

To mark the official opening of Horizon Europe, the European Commission arranged two free-to-air conferences for all citizens and stakeholders.

The European Research and Innovation Days, the Commission’s annual flagship Research and Innovation event, was held on 23-24 June. Policymakers, researchers, innovators, and other stakeholders took part in over 70 sessions and workshops to discuss the future European research and innovation landscape. Sessions included ‘tips and tricks’ for writing Horizon Europe proposals; an overview of the Commission’s Funding & Tenders Portal; discussions over lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic; and an overview of the Africa Initiative in Horizon Europe. Recorded sessions from the event can be accessed via the event platform.

Running from 28 June to 9 July, the Horizon Europe Info Days will provide an in-depth overview of some of the main funding channels provided under Horizon Europe. The sessions will specifically focus on the six Clusters under Pillar II – Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness, ­as well as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, Research Infrastructures, and Widening Participation and Strengthening the ERA (European Research Area) strands of Horizon Europe. With the exception of the Cluster 3 – Civil Security for Society session on 30 June, the event is open for participation without prior registration, and attendees will have the opportunity to ask questions, find out what is new in Horizon Europe and obtain further details about how the programme will operate. Interested parties can access the event’s online portal here.


ResearchConnect: the essential source of research funding information

This post was written by our colleagues in ResearchConnect, a specialist research funding database built for and designed by the international research community.

ResearchConnect’s up-to-the-minute database covers all of the key research disciplines and is updated by an expert team who monitor and report on a wide range of funding sources including charitable trusts, government, research councils, foundations and corporate sponsors. The ResearchConnect team maintains regular contact with funding administrators and policy managers across a wide range of sources, providing advance notice of new funding opportunities and policy changes.

For more information, visit the ResearchConnect website.

Levelling up: can charities get a piece of the action?

The UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world. It ranks near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality. Fixing this is a priority for a government elected in 2019 on a pledge to address inequalities in former industrial regions, and in coastal and isolated rural areas.

So far, over £8bn has been put aside by the government for additional investment in so-called ‘left behind’ areas. The policy also appears to enjoy public support. The recent success of the Conservative candidate in the Hartlepool by-election, and the election of mayors in Teesside and West Yorkshire show that voters will back politicians with strong levelling up messages.

Local authorities and businesses are eager to bid for the first pots of levelling up funding that are coming onstream. But is there room for charities to get involved, and is there still time for them to shape the levelling up agenda?

This was the focus of a webinar organised by NPC, the think tank and consultancy for the charity sector.

Defining levelling up

There are different views about what the phase ‘levelling up’ actually means. But Tom Collinge, policy manager at NPC explained that this has become clearer now that various initiatives under the government’s levelling up agenda have got under way:

The Levelling Up Fund is a £4.8bn fund to invest in infrastructure that will regenerate town centres, upgrade local transport and invest in cultural and heritage assets.

The Towns Fund is a £3.6bn fund to support the regeneration of towns.

The UK Community Renewal Fund will provide £220 million additional funding to help places across the UK prepare for the introduction of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (the UK’s replacement for structural funding from the European Union).

The Community Ownership Fund will provide £150 million to help community groups buy or take over local community assets at risk of being lost.

Levelling up funds: making the case for charities

Looking at this funding from a voluntary sector perspective, Tom acknowledged that charities may find it hard to see how they can fit into the kind of work that is eligible for funding. A lot of the focus is on capital spending – transport infrastructure, repairing buildings and creating new parks. An NPC analysis of the levelling up funds found that as much as 87% could go on capital investment. This could be challenging for charities whose work involves delivering services in areas such as youth provision, addiction or homelessness.

Even so, Tom suggested that charities shouldn’t write off their chances of accessing these funds. He explained that a lot of the language used in the funding documents is ambiguous – there are repeated  references to ‘community’ and ‘community assets’ without making clear what they mean. This ambiguity could work in charities’ favour. At the same time, many charities work under the banners of skills, employment, heritage and culture. It’s up to charities, therefore, to identify elements in the funding that match what they can offer.

Deadlines are tight: bids for the first funds must be submitted by June 18. So, the time has come, said Tom, for charities to be vocal and make an economic case for levelling up funding.  Collaboration with local authorities and metro mayors is likely to be crucial, and Tom suggested that charities with already good relations with local stakeholders are more likely to succeed in their bids.

Levelling up : the local perspective

Kim Shutler, Chair of Bradford District Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) Assembly agreed that collaboration with local councils is key for charities looking to bid for levelling up funds. But although Bradford’s VCS has a strong relationship with local government, Kim explained that making the voluntary sector’s voice heard can be challenging.

While Kim has experience of partnering with statutory services in delivering mental health support to adults, bids for levelling up funds are handled differently. She was critical of the lack of clarity in how charities can influence the levelling up agenda in meaningful and sustainable ways, and suggested that the top-down nature of the process is detrimental to grass-roots charities.

Where charities can succeed, she suggested, is to demonstrate to local authorities and other partners that the voluntary sector has a compelling story to tell. Learning the language of the people with the money, making a good business case and articulating what charities can bring to the table means the voluntary sector can find a way into the levelling up process.

Shaping the levelling up agenda

As corporate director of children’s services at Barnardo’s, Lynn Perry is well placed to talk about levelling up. Much of what the charity does involves working at the heart of communities, in partnership with local agencies, young people and families. 

Charities like Barnardo’s have a unique understanding of the challenges facing the country’s poorest communities. Lynn believes that this perspective strengthens the voluntary sector’s offer, not just in terms of service delivery, but in designing policies and thinking about community assets.

Looking at the bias towards capital projects in the levelling up funds, Lynn argued that a broader definition of infrastructure is needed. Support for families, care for the elderly and improving the lives of disabled people is every bit as important as 5G and better transport. And with the right social infrastructure, young people who get early and continued support can grow up to be the nurses, engineers and climate scientists we’ll need in the years to come.

Lynn observed that this is a unique moment to recognise the value charities can bring to the levelling up agenda. During the pandemic, the voluntary sector has played a vital role in supporting communities in ways that some public services could not. She believes that the future of the levelling up agenda should be shaped by working with communities and the charities that support them. And, along with Kim Shulter, she stressed the need to make better use of the insights and social data collected by charities to demonstrate the real value of the voluntary sector.

Tom Collinge supported this, and suggested that while it might be too late for charities to influence the existing levelling up funds, they should be looking towards the Shared Prosperity Fund. The delay in its introduction may be beneficial, giving the voluntary sector time to think about making the case for revenue funding.

Raising the voice of the voluntary sector

The UK has a long road to follow before it can say the work of levelling up is done. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has observed,

“The differences between regions are rooted in history going back decades, even centuries. Having fundamental effects on them will require reallocating capital spending for sure, and a whole lot more — investment in skills, in health, in early years, and a coherent and long-term industrial strategy.”

Working with local stakeholders, charities can bring their insights, skills and experience to this process, both in terms of accessing funds and influencing future programmes. It’s now time for the voluntary sector to speak up on levelling up.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange on community development and regeneration

The year of living differently: reviewing The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2020

2020 has been a year like no other. A microscopic virus – 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – has dominated, disrupted and redefined the way we live and work.

Although the pandemic is primarily a public health emergency, its effects have been felt in all areas of public and social policy, from economic development and employment to transport and the environment. Throughout this year, our blog has reflected on the impacts of the coronavirus and the restrictions introduced to prevent its spread.

The COVID-19 knock-on

While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news headlines, it has also obscured the knock-on effects on the NHS. In October, we reported on the impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures, such as screening and routine medical care in the form of pre-planned operations for long-term chronic and non-urgent conditions.

As the blog post noted, the impacts have been wide-ranging, including not only delays in care for case of physical ill health, but also for those seeking treatment for mental health conditions:

“Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this.”

The ‘hidden epidemic’

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence had become known as a ‘hidden epidemic’ in the UK. In September, our blog highlighted the unintended consequences of quarantine for domestic abuse victims.

After the UK entered lockdown in March, calls and online enquiries to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse line increased by 25%. Three-quarters of victims told a BBC investigation that lockdown had made it harder for them to escape their abusers and in many cases had intensified the abuse they received.

Despite additional government funding, the local authorities and charities which support victims of domestic violence have been struggling with the financial fallout from the pandemic. Even so,  important partnerships have been formed between local government, educational institutions and third sector bodies to provide safe spaces for women and their children fleeing violence. Among these was an initiative at the University of Cambridge:

St Catherine’s College formed a partnership with Cambridge Women’s Aid to provide over 1000 nights of secure supported accommodation during the lockdown period.

‘Same storm, different boats’

As the recent Marmot review has stressed, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and deepened many of the deep-rooted inequalities in our society, including gender, ethnicity and income.  It has also shone a light on more recent inequalities, such as the growth of precarious employment among sections of the population.

In July, we looked at the uneven economic impact of the pandemic, focusing on the heavy price being paid by young people, women, disabled people and Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

Women often work in the frontline of care services and have had to juggle childcare during lockdown. BAME communities are over-represented in key-worker jobs, and so were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.

And although there has been much talk about ‘building back better’, our blog post drew attention to the observations of Dr Sally Witcher, CEO of Inclusion Scotland during a Poverty Alliance webinar:

“She asks whether indeed we should want to build back, when the old normal didn’t work for a large proportion of people, particularly those with disabilities. Dr Witcher also questions ‘who’ is doing the building, and whether the people designing this new future will have the knowledge and lived experience of what really needs to change.”

The impacts of a pandemic

Many other aspects of the impact of COVID-19 have been covered in our blog:

  • How housing providers have embraced the fluidity of an emergency situation, including tackling homelessness, engaging effectively with tenants and addressing mental ill health.
  • Digital healthcare solutions for those with coronavirus and for the continuity of care and day-to-day running of the NHS.
  • Creating and managing a COVID-secure workplace.
  • How COVID-19 is changing public transport, including an acceleration towards contactless payment and mobile ticketing.
  • The additional challenges of the pandemic facing autistic children and young people.
  • The impact of the coronavirus restrictions on the arts.
  • The role of green new deals in tackling climate change and economic inequality as part of the post-Covid recovery.

Beyond the virus

Although the pandemic has been at the forefront of all our minds this year, The Knowledge Exchange blog has also taken the time to focus on other important issues in public and social policy:

We’ve also taken advantage of the ‘new normal’ experience of remote working to join a number of webinars, and to report back on the observations and ideas emerging from them. Most recently, our blogs have focused on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, which included contributions on how the planning system can help address climate change.

Final thoughts

The health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic are likely to be long-lasting – restrictions on travel, work and socialising will continue into the spring, and insolvencies and unemployment numbers are likely to rise. And the continuing uncertainty over the UK’s new trading relationship with the European Union will generate additional challenges.   

But, as a frequently difficult, often challenging and sometimes distressing year draws to a close, there is cause for optimism about 2021. Vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus have been developed with lightning speed. Across the UK people are already being vaccinated, with greater numbers set to receive the jab in the coming months.

Here at The Knowledge Exchange, we’ll continue to highlight the key issues facing public and social policy and practice as we move towards the post-Covid era.

Season’s greetings

It’s with even greater meaning than ever before that we wish all our readers a happy Christmas, and a healthy, prosperous and happy new year.

Best wishes from everyone at The Knowledge Exchange: Morwen, Christine, Heather, Donna, Rebecca, Scott, Hannah and James.


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Skilling up: the case for digital literacy

As technology has advanced, and it has become harder to name simple tasks that have not become digitised in some form, the need for everyone in society to have a basic level of digital skills has markedly increased. From applying for jobs to ordering a coffee via an app, digital technology has undoubtedly changed the way we all go about our day-to-day lives. For those with the appropriate digital skillset, these advances may be viewed as a positive transition to more efficiently operated services. However, for those without the necessary digital skills, there is a risk that they will struggle to access even the most basic of essential services, such as opening a bank account.

Therefore, it is of no surprise that the issue of the digital skills gap is a concern for governments and businesses alike, with a recent report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee highlighting that the UK could be missing out on £63 billion in lost GDP each year, due to a general lack of digital skills.

The issue of the digital skills gap has never been more pronounced, as a result of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, where various restrictions have required us all to embrace digital technology, in order to work, learn and socialise with our friends and family.

Digital skills at work

The extent to which technology has changed the world of work cannot be overstated, with a recent CBI report stating that the UK is the midst of a fourth industrial revolution, spurred on by advancements in automation, artificial intelligence and biotechnology. Research conducted by the CBI found that 57% of businesses say that they will need significantly more digital skills in the next five years. Therefore, the workforce of the future will need to be supported to gain these digital skills, in order to gain employment and enable British business to benefit from the digital revolution.

Concerns have been raised regarding the ability of young people to access opportunities that will support them in developing transferable digital skills. Grasping key digital skills, such as the ability to navigate Microsoft Office, is undoubtedly necessary, but is no longer enough to meet the needs of employers.  

Digital literacy: the bedrock for a fourth industrial revolution

The ability to not just be able to use digital technology, but to truly understand how it works, is known as digital literacy. A report from the House of Commons Education Select Committee sets out how crucial digital literacy will be to the success of the fourth industrial revolution. The speed with which technology is advancing and changing ensures that within just a few years, digital platforms that we use today may become outdated. Therefore, it is unwise to focus on using a single platform when developing digital skills, as inevitably the platform will either gain new functionalities or become obsolete. Instead, digital skills should be developed in a way that ensures they are future-proofed and will not go to waste when the inescapable next big technological or societal change occurs.

Why do we need digital literacy?

An example of why digital literacy is important can be seen in the way in which many of us have adapted to work from home, as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. Restrictions on face-to-face meetings forced us to consider new ways to work collaboratively and explore the myriad of platforms that facilitate video-calling, file sharing and instant messaging. Whilst we may have already had experience using existing video-conferencing platforms, such as Skype, it was clear that each organisation had to consider using new software, such as Zoom and Google Hangouts.

Many of us would never have used these software packages before and were expected to rapidly get to grips with it in real-time, and without the usual in-person back-up networks of colleagues and IT support. This highlights the importance of digital literacy: the ability to take insight gained from interacting with one digital platform and apply it to another was vital for business continuity during the initial lockdown. The ability to transfer knowledge gained from one platform to another, is vital to ensure that we harness the opportunities of digital advancements as they occur, and without the need for lengthy additional training.

Developing digital literacy

Developing digital literacy can be difficult. Research conducted by the Nuffield Foundation found that providing access to computers in schools was not enough to encourage the development of digital literacy. Instead, FutureLab advises that computers should be embedded and used across the curriculum. Ideas put forward within FutureLab’s Digital Literacy handbook, include:

  • Support children to make mistakes when using technology, allow them to create content that may not be to the high-standard we would expect and enable them to consider how they can improve the quality of their output.
  • Provide opportunities for children to work collaboratively online, e.g create a wiki or real-time document creation via Google Docs. Use this experience to highlight how anyone can make changes online, and develop critical understanding of how what we see online may not always be entirely trustworthy.
  • Harness the power of technology by going beyond the basics. Most children will be able to conduct a simple online search, then highlight ways this can be improved and advanced through Boolean search terms. Incorporate this into a lesson that discusses the value of critically assessing the value of information.

Final thoughts

Since the widespread adoption of the internet, the way we use technology has changed at an almost frightening pace. Therefore, the digital skills we all need to interact with technology must keep up if we are to truly harness the power and potential of these new advancements.

Ensuring that we are all digitally literate will enable us to take advantage of new digital platforms effectively and could potentially lead to future economic prosperity. Developing digital literacy, will not be easy, but it will be vital to ensure the future workforce have the skills they need to gain employment and play their part within the fourth industrial revolution.



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Read some of our other blogs on digital skills:

Knowledge from a distance: recent webinars on public and social policy

During the national lockdown, it’s been impossible for most of us to attend conferences and seminars. But many organisations have been harnessing the power of technology to help people share their knowledge, ideas and experience in virtual seminars.

In the past few weeks, the research officers at The Knowledge Exchange have joined some of these webinars, and in today’s blog post we’d like to share with you some of the public and social policy issues that have been highlighted in these online events.

The liveable city

Organised by the Danish Embassy in the UK, this webinar brought together a range of speakers from Denmark and the UK to consider how our cities may change post COVID-19, including questions around green space, high street recovery, active travel and density and types of residential living accommodation in our towns and cities.

Speakers came from two London boroughs, architectural design and urban planning backgrounds and gave examples of experiences in Newham, Ealing and Copenhagen as well as other more general examples from across the UK and Denmark. The seminar’s website also includes links to presentations on previous Liveable City events in Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol and Glasgow.


What next for public health?

“Healthcare just had its 2008 banking crisis… COVID-19 has generated a real seismic shift within the sector and I don’t think we will ever go back”

This webinar brought together commentators and thought leaders from across the digital health and tech sectors to think about how public health may be transformed by our experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant shift to digital and online platforms to deliver care.

The speakers discussed data, privacy and trust and the need to recognise different levels of engagement with digital platforms to ensure that specific groups like older people don’t feel unable to access services. They also discussed the importance of not being driven by data, but using data to help us to make better decisions. The webinar was organised by BIMA, a community of businesses, charities and academia across the UK.


Green cities

This project, organised by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), included 3 webinars each looking at different elements of green infrastructure within cities, including designing and planning, assessing the quality of different types of green infrastructure and highlighting the positive impacts of incorporating more good quality green spaces for mental and physical health, as well as for environmental purposes.


Rough sleeping and homelessness during and after the coronavirus

Organised by the Centre for London, this webinar brought together speakers from across the homelessness sector within London, including St Mungos, the Greater London Authority (GLA) and Croydon Council to explore how the COVID-19 pandemic was impacting people who are homeless or sleeping rough in the city.

Each speaker brought insights from their own experiences supporting homeless people in the capital (so far) during the COVID 19-pandemic. They highlighted some of the challenges, as well as some of the more positive steps forward, particularly in relation to co-operation and partnership working across different levels of government and with other sectors such as health.

They also commended everyone involved for the speed at which they acted to support homeless people, particularly those who were vulnerable or at risk. However, concerns were also raised around future planning and the importance of not regressing back into old ways of working once the pandemic response tails off.


Poverty, health and Covid-19: emerging lessons in Scotland

This webinar was hosted by the Poverty Alliance as part of a wider series that they are hosting.  It looked at how to ‘build back better’ following the pandemic, with a particular focus upon addressing the long-standing inequalities that exist throughout society.

The event included presentations from Dr Gerry McCartney, Head of the Public Health Observatory at Public Health Scotland, Dr Anne Mullin, Chair of the Deep End GPs, and Professor Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at University of Edinburgh.

A key message throughout was that while the immediate health impacts of the pandemic have been huge, there is an urgent need to acknowledge and address the “long-term challenge” – the impact on health caused by the economic and social inequalities associated with the pandemic.

It is estimated that over 10 years, the impact of inequalities will be six times greater than that of an unmitigated pandemic. Therefore, ‘building back better’ is essential in order to ensure long-term population health.


Returning to work: addressing unemployment after Covid-19

This webinar was also hosted by the Poverty Alliance as part of their wider webinar series on the pandemic.

The focus here was how to address the inevitable rise in unemployment following the pandemic – the anticipated increase in jobless numbers is currently estimated to be over three million.

The event included presentations from Kathleen Henehan, Research and Policy Analyst at Resolution Foundation, Anna Ritchie Allan, Executive Director at Close the Gap, and Tony Wilson, Director of the Institute for Employment Studies.

The webinar highlighted the unprecedented scale of the problem – noting that more than half of the working population are currently not working due to the pandemic, being either unemployed, furloughed or in receipt of self-employment support.

A key theme of the presentation was that certain groups are likely to be disproportionately affected by unemployment as the support provided by the government’s support schemes draw to a close later this year.  This includes women – particularly those from BAME groups, the lower paid and migrants – and young people.  So it’s essential that the support provided by the government in the form of skills, training, job creation schemes etc addresses this, and is both gender-sensitive and intersectional.


Supporting the return to educational settings of autistic children and young people

The aim of this webinar, provided by the National Autism Implementation Team (NAIT), was to offer a useful overview of how to support autistic children and young people, and those with additional support needs, back into educational settings following the pandemic.

Currently around 25% of learners in mainstream schools have additional support needs, and it is generally accepted that good autism practice is beneficial for all children.

The webinar set out eight key messages for supporting a successful return, which included making anticipatory adjustments rather than ‘waiting and seeing’, using visual supports, providing predictability, planning for movement breaks and provision of a ‘safe space’ for each child.  The importance of listening to parents was also emphasised.


P1050381.JPG

Ellisland Farm, Dumfries. “P1050381.JPG” by ejbluefolds is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Burns at Ellisland

Our Research Officer, Donna Gardiner has also been following some cultural webinars, including one that focused on the links between Scotland’s national poet and the Ellisland Farm site. The webinar was led by Professor Gerard Carruthers, Francis Hutcheson Chair of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow and co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies.

Robert Burns lived at Ellisland Farm in Dumfriesshire between May 1788 and November 1791, and is where he produced a significant proportion of his work – 23% of his letters and 28% of his songs and poems, including the famous Tam O’Shanter and Auld Lang Syne.

The presentation looked at how Robert Burns was influenced by the farm itself and its location on the banks of the River Nith.  It also touched on his involvement with local politics and friends in the area, which too influenced his work.

It was suggested that the Ellisland farm site could be considered in many ways to be the birthplace of wider European Romanticism. The webinar also included contributions from Joan McAlpine MSP, who is chair of the newly formed Robert Burns Ellisland Trust. She discussed how to help promote and conserve this historic site, particularly given the impact of the coronavirus on tourism.


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Coping with covid: supporting autistic children through and beyond lockdown

The measures put in place to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) have impacted almost every aspect of our lives – from our contact with family, friends and loved ones, to how we work, eat, shop, relax and learn.

Adapting to and living with these new measures has been universally challenging.  For autistic people, the changes to daily life associated with the COVID-19 outbreak present a number of additional challenges.  In this blog, we are going to discuss some of these additional challenges, with a particular focus on autistic children and young people.  We also highlight some available supports.

Change of routines

A key feature of autism is the desire to follow certain routines and/or avoid unexpected or unpredictable events. Thus, adjusting to the changes caused by COVID-19 poses particular difficulty for many autistic people, for whom changes to routine may cause additional anxiety, distress and in some cases, emotional overload.

Other autistic people may be distressed because of the lack of structure their day now has – being unable to tell one day from the next, when there are no defining characteristics, can feel particularly disorientating.

Scottish Autism have produced guidance for autistic people and their parents/carers on helping to maintain a routine and the reasons why this is important.  They explain that not only does maintaining a routine provide a sense of security and stability, it can also help to provide a sense of calmness, support emotional self-regulation and encourage health and positive habits.

Many autistic children already use visual schedules and/or calendars to let them know what is happening and what to expect next.  These can be helpful in the current circumstances to help children adapt to new routines at home, and bring some sense of predictability and control to their changed lives.

 Being at home

Another change that COVID-19 has brought about is that more people within the household are at home than is typical – for example, one or both parents/carers may be working from home, along with any siblings/other householders who are usually in education or work.

This may be present challenges for autistic people both in terms of the change to routine and also in terms of sensory issues (e.g. noise).  For example, the household being busier than usual may be more challenging for autistic people as they will subsequently have less time and/or space to themselves, which may be needed in order to self-regulate and/or avoid sensory overload.

Special interests

Many autistic people have special interests that form a large part of their daily routines, and may play a key role in enabling them to relax, self-regulate and recover from sensory overload.

The coronavirus ‘lockdown’ has prevented most outdoors activities from taking place.  Thus many autistic people may have found that their special interest is no longer open to them – from train spotting to bird watching.  The removal of this activity from their life may be experienced as particularly distressing, and make self-regulation more difficult.

School closures

The widespread closure of schools means that many parents of autistic children have found themselves responsible for educating their child at home.

Educating children at home under these new circumstances is challenging for all parents.  However, for parents of autistic children, it presents additional challenges.

Many autistic children require additional support with their learning, and may experience difficulties sustaining concentration.  Autistic children may also have additional support needs such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, which may require the use of specific approaches and/or learning aids.  This presents additional challenges for learning in the home environment for parents that are unaccustomed to providing a full time education for their child.

In school, many autistic children receive additional support in class either in a 1-2-1 or in a small group lesson from practitioners skilled in addressing these additional needs. Replicating this level of support at home is of course challenging for parents who may not be familiar with the techniques used, or skilled in their use.  They may also struggle to provide the necessary 1-2-1 support if they are also expected to work from home themselves, or have other children to care for.

Concern about their child being disproportionately affected by school closures without the skilled support that they receive in schools may also add considerable stress.  For example, the United Nations has recently noted in a briefing paper that children with disabilities and special needs are among those most dependent on face-to-face services and are least likely to benefit from distance learning solutions.

As well as adequately supporting special educational needs, there are also challenges in relation to an autistic child’s ability and/or willingness to undertake schoolwork at home.  Some autistic people have difficulties with what is termed ‘flexible thinking’. This may include, for example, the ability to see something in a new way. Autistic children may be more likely to have a fixed perception of home as distinct from school.  Thus, it may be more difficult for autistic children to accept and adapt to schoolwork being done at home.  Similarly, they may not readily accept the notion that their parent or carer is now also their ‘teacher’, particularly if this person is usually relied upon as being their primary source of comfort and safety when distressed.

Accessible home learning

While this is without a doubt a difficult situation for both autistic people and their parents/carers, the good news is that there is an increasing amount of support and sources of advice available to help support autistic people to adapt and respond to the ‘new normal’ that the coronavirus pandemic has created.

On Twitter, the #accessiblehomelearning hashtag has been trending, with people sharing lots of home learning ideas and support for parents and carers, including tools to support individuals with dyslexia and/or reading and writing difficulties.

Lucy Chetty, Head Teacher at New Struan School has also shared her top tips on education at home.  She notes that different young people will experience the changes to life differently – some will enjoy having more control over their day outside of school, whereas others will miss the routines that they are used to.

According to Lucy, happiness and fun is a key aspect of learning. Thus parents and carers should try to find something that interests and motivates their individual child special interests may be of particular help in this regard.

On a practical level, ensuring clarity is hugely important.  This includes providing clear instructions, and setting out a clear beginning, middle and end to the activity.  Also recommended is ‘chunking down’ activities into smaller pieces so that there are regular breaks, and the use of visual strips and/or timers to help illustrate how long an activity will last.

 Re-opening schools

As we look ahead to the future, there are a number of critical issues that need to be considered to support autistic children and/or adults to transition back out of lockdown.

Transitioning back into the school environment will be challenging for many autistic children, particularly those that have previously found it difficult to attend school, and/or have experience of ‘school refusal’.  For many autistic children, successful school attendance has required a great deal of input from teaching and support staff, parents and the child themselves. This is because the school environment is often experienced as being particularly challenging for a number of different reasons – for example, sensory issues (e.g. noises, smells, lighting), difficulties with processing information, and/or social communication challenges (social skills, etiquette, etc).  Many autistic children also experience heightened levels of anxiety, which is exacerbated by the school environment.

Many autistic children will need additional support with the change of routine back to school days and hours, and also with their anxiety levels – particularly if they have concerns about catching and/or spreading the virus, or if other people within the school are perceived to be ‘not following the rules’.

Additional support for transitioning back into school will be particularly important if the new school environment looks significantly different to that which the child is used to as a result of social distancing measures – for example, by attending different hours or days at school, or having different classroom set ups to allow for social distancing – both of which are options currently being considered by the Scottish Government.

Transitioning out of lockdown

In recognition of the difficulties facing many autistic people and their parents and/or carers, the Scottish Government recently announced new funding to help provide additional support in the form of an extended helpline run by Scottish Autism, and the creation of online social support groups by the National Autistic Society Scotland. 

Researchers at UCL Institute of Education are also currently conducting research into the experiences and needs of parents and carers of autistic children during the pandemic, which will hopefully help inform how they can best be supported as we transition out of lockdown and into the future, where we learn to live alongside coronavirus.

In Scotland, the Education Recovery Group is currently exploring options for stabilising the education of pupils with additional support needs as “an early priority”.

While there is still a degree of uncertainty about how and when lockdown will be eased across the UK, what is certain is that the easing of lockdown – whenever it happens – will present additional challenges for many autistic people and their parents/carers. Listening to the voices of autistic people and their parents and carers will be hugely important if they are to be successfully supported in this transition.


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Living life in full colour: exploring the relationship between colour, design, behaviour and emotion

Seeing red…. green with jealousy….. feeling blue. Associating colours with emotions is not new, but increasingly, psychologists are being asked to explore the relationship between colour, emotion and its impact in a number of different settings, including learning in classroom settings, the design of the built environment, including work spaces and travel hubs, and improving wellbeing as a result.

Colour is a powerful tool. It can be used to get attention, enhance clarity, establish a code, label and differentiate items, as well as to influence behaviour or learning outcomes. For example in schools we are often told to use blue or black ink. Red ink is supposed to be used by teachers to correct assignments, notebooks, and class work. This is a deliberate tool to draw our attention to the mistake we make, designed to help enhance our learning outcomes, in the sense that by drawing attention to the mistake we will remember not to repeat the points highlighted.

“Bad” and “good” colours

Studies have disagreed on how exactly our association between colour and emotions develops. Some have suggested it is an instinctive reaction, something primal which suggests to us that things that are red in colour are dangerous or negative, while blues and yellows signal happier less aggressive colours.

However, others have suggested that the connotations we associate with colour are learned, albeit from a very young age. We associate some colours as being “good” and others as “bad” and this impacts how we interact around them in spaces like classrooms and workspaces. The meaning of colours is culturally-specific and differs around the world in different societies and groups.

However, a third view is that colour theory is much more complex than simply yellow = happy and blue = sad. Colours can have several meanings, and can encourage an audience to feel or act in certain ways depending on when and how they are used, and in some instances depending on personal experiences which people link to specific colours. This is the reason why the literature on colour is so contested; in many instances it blurs the boundary between our instinctive associations of colours and those associations we create ourselves through experiences.

Image “Harvey_Nash_13″ by K2 Space is licensed under CC BY 2.0

How colours are impacting on the design of our spaces

Knowing how colour can affect behaviours is informative for designers and psychologists in a number of environments, including in schools, offices or hospitals. In a learning context, such as in a school using “engaging” hues (warm colours such as red, orange, and yellow) to prevent learners from getting bored, and passive hues (cold colours such as green and blue) to keep learners calm can help with learning, but getting this balance right is important.

A number of studies have looked at the impact of classroom design, including use of colour on the learning and behavioural outcomes of both neurodiverse, and neurotypical children, with many emphasising that overstimulation, particularly of young children through excessive use of bright colour can create a disruptive classroom environment and make it difficult to encourage concentration and staying on task. However, some colour in specific areas of the classroom is good to help with engagement and stimulation.

Similarly, colours have been used by architects and designers in their choice of building material or building design to help encourage feelings of calm or reflection. This is particularly the case in transport hubs like airports and in hospitals or care facilities. Using fresh and calming colours which relate strongly to nature is also a technique used by office designers to help create the feeling of open calm and fresh spaces to help improve working environments and improve productivity.

The design of the built environment and how “green” and “blue” features which incorporate natural materials (green spaces and water have a positive impact on mental and physical wellbeing) has been widely discussed by planners and architects. The evidence generally supports the view that the inclusion of green spaces, promotes health and wellbeing across the life course. This combination of colour and the integration of nature into spaces is being used increasingly in the design of buildings and  in master planning for large urban projects.

Final thoughts

Colour and emotion both play important roles in our capacity to learn and be productive. The association between colour and our emotions and actions is complex and a source of disagreement for some psychologists. Colour has been found to affect how people feel both psychologically and physically. Understanding how colour and emotion relate and how colour can be used to change environments to encourage particular feelings of calmness or concentration, particularly in schools and workplaces is something that will be further explored by designers.

Colour should be understood as part of a wider “toolkit” used by designers and architects to ensure that we are building better places that create environments which support and promote wellbeing, encourage positive emotions and create more effective spaces for us to work, learn and interact in.


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Further education: happy-ever-after for the Cinderella sector?

“It has, I believe, been an old complaint among many concerned with the technical side of education that that part of education has been the Cinderella. Well, the Government is determined that even if there was any truth in that in the past, there shall be none in the future.”

That forthright pledge came, not from a politician in our own times, but from the president of the board of education in 1935. Almost a century later, further education (FE) is still struggling to break away from its position as an overlooked and under-resourced Cinderella sector.

The importance of FE

FE matters in many ways to many people. Through FE, individuals can get a second chance to obtain qualifications, equip themselves for higher education, and improve their employability or chances of promotion, as well as enjoying countless health and wellbeing benefits.  Employers look to FE  to provide a workforce with the skills they need. So many of the services we rely on today depend on people who learned their skills in FE colleges, from car mechanics to care workers, hairdressers to housing managers. Not incidentally, the wider economy benefits from the improved productivity, increased tax-take and knowledge transfer that FE delivers. In spite of all these benefits, FE colleges attract less attention and funding than schools or universities, and their impact is not so widely recognised.

The Cinderella factors

In 2018, researchers from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education identified six key issues affecting FE policy in England:

  • English FE is not defined clearly and stably;
  • the strength and continuity of FE colleges have been undermined by multiple and changing funding sources and funders, frequent government reviews and frequent substantial policy changes;
  • increasing numbers of college lecturers are employed on zero hours contracts;
  • mergers and closures have undermined colleges’ community and employment functions;
  • competition among the multiplicity of private bodies awarding FE qualifications is leading them to make their qualifications easier to attain;
  • cuts in FE funding have greatly weakened colleges, leaving them under-resourced.

The hardest-hit service

As the Ontario study noted, funding is a key factor in the precarious position of FE in the UK, something echoed by further research. An independent review of post-18 education, led by Philip Augar, reported that in 2018 English universities received £8bn in government funding to support 1.2m undergraduates, while just £2.3bn was allocated for the 2.2m full and part-time students aged over 18 in further education.

A further report, published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies  found that over the last decade further education and skills spending for young people and adults received the largest cuts across all areas of education spending.

The House of Commons Education Committee has also identified FE as the hardest hit part of the education sector:

“Participation in full time further education has more than doubled since the 1980s, yet post-16 budgets have seen the most significant pressures of all education stages. Per student funding fell by 16% in real terms between 2010–11 and 2018–19 – twice as much as the 8% school funding fall over a similar period.”

Witnesses contributing to the Committee’s investigation were in no doubt that FE has been hit harder than other parts of the education sector because it doesn’t have the ear of politicians in the way that schools and universities do. As one contributor put it:

“…there are more votes in schools than colleges.”

Remedies and recommendations

The Augar review observed that there is a powerful case for change in the FE sector, and made a number of recommendations to improve the quality, capability and capacity of England’s FE college network, including:

  • a national network of colleges should be established, with a dedicated capital investment, and the integration of small, local colleges into groups;
  • full funding should be provided for all students participating in study for levels 2 and 3 to remove barriers to social mobility and productivity;
  • the reduction in the core funding rate for 18 year-olds should be reversed;
  • Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) funding rules should be simplified, and government should commit to providing an indicative adult education budget;
  • the government should invest in the FE workforce as a priority;
  • FE colleges should have a protected title, as universities are entitled to.

The Augar recommendation that £3bn should flow to colleges, along with a one-off £1bn capital funding boost for the national network underlines the need for government to take further education seriously. As things stand, FE is still awaiting a definitive government response.

FE in the rest of the UK

Scotland
In Scotland, where FE colleges provide around 71 million hours of learning to over 242,00 students each year, financial pressures are increasing. A 2019 Audit Scotland report noted that Scottish colleges are operating within an increasingly tight financial environment. It reported that 12 colleges were forecasting recurring financial deficits by 2022-23. The report suggested that there is scope for the Scottish Funding Council to work with individual colleges and their boards to improve financial planning and to achieve greater transparency in the sector’s financial position. More recently, research by the principals of Scotland’s two largest colleges reported that FE boosts Scotland’s GDP by £3.5bn a year.

Wales
The 2016 Hazelkorn review made recommendations for post-compulsory education in Wales, including a new Tertiary Education Authority to distribute funding to universities and colleges, and to shape the vision of the post-compulsory sector. The review also recommended that education policy and institutions should be more focused on Wales’ social and economic goals. The Welsh Government has accepted the recommendations.

Northern Ireland
Six regional colleges, operating across 40 campuses, are the main providers of technical and vocational education in Northern Ireland. In 2016, the Northern Ireland Executive reviewed FE, resulting in a strategy with nine themes covering areas such as economic development; social inclusion and delivery. It includes a commitment to, in partnership with the colleges, review the funding model to ensure that it supports and incentivises colleges to deliver the strategy. With the resumption of the devolved assembly in Northern Ireland, the hope is that the government can work with the FE sector to meet the challenges of funding and the needs of the economy.

Cinderella no more?

Further education is the backbone of the UK’s efforts to meet the country’s growing skills gap, and may hold the key to improving productivity and social mobility. But OECD figures show just 37% of men and 34% of women participate in further education (compared to averages of 49% and 44% respectively across other industrialised countries). Clearly, more needs to be done to help FE level up.

Earlier this month, in his first Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed the Conservative Party’s election manifesto commitments for FE, including £1.8bn for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to upgrade college buildings. There are also high hopes that more money will be delivered to FE in the autumn spending review.

The FE sector has welcomed the change in approach. Following the Budget speech, the Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes said: “Today showed a clear shift in attitude towards technical and vocational education, after a decade of neglect.”

It might still be too soon to forecast a happy ending for the Cinderella sector, but the signs are that FE is coming in from the cold.


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“Talent without Limits”: the impact of apprenticeships in Scotland

by Scott Faulds

Over the past six years, Skills Development Scotland has been working to increase the number of people starting apprenticeships across Scotland. Recent statistics have revealed that they are on track to meet their target of 30,000 new apprenticeship starts by the end of the financial year 2020. The provision of apprenticeships has been a key element of the Scottish Government’s youth employment strategy , which highlights the government’s belief that apprenticeships are an excellent opportunity for young people to gains skills, experience and a qualification while in employment.

This week (2nd March to 6th March) Skills Development Scotland has launched Scottish Apprenticeship Week 2020, with the theme “Talent without limits”, designed to celebrate the benefits apprenticeships bring to businesses, individuals and the economy. This blog will explore the impact of apprenticeships on business, education providers and young people in Scotland. It will also consider the benefits of work-based learning, graduate apprenticeships and workplace diversity.

Work-based learning

The availability of good-quality apprenticeships allows those who may not be interested in pursuing further education an alternative route in which to gain a formal qualification whilst gaining experience in the world of work. This is known as work-based learning, which is widely considered to be beneficial to the apprentice, education provider, employer and the wider economy.

According to research conducted by the European Training Foundation, workplaces where employees are constantly learning new skills tend to be more productive, more profitable and have lower staff turnover. A recent survey conducted by Skills Development Scotland found that 83% of modern apprentice employers agree that apprenticeships have improved productivity, whilst 79% said that employing apprentices improved staff morale.

Additionally, work-based learning has been found to improve the job prospects of learners, allowing them to build relationships with employers who may offer them full-time positions on completion of their apprenticeship.

The development of apprenticeship programmes allows employers and education providers to develop a close working relationship, which enables a better understanding of the skills required by the labour market. This allows for the creation of educational programmes that are more relevant to the demands of all employers, not just those who operate apprenticeship schemes. As a result, the skills developed by apprentices will be directly relevant to the skills required by the labour market. This could potentially improve the likelihood of securing a job following the completion of an apprenticeship. Thus, it can be said that work-based learning features benefits for apprentices, education providers, business and the wider economy.

Skills, growth sectors and graduate apprenticeships

Apprenticeship schemes provide the government with an opportunity to improve the collective skill base of Scotland by encouraging the development of apprenticeship opportunities in key sectors and areas which have the potential to generate economic growth. For example, analysis conducted by Oxford Economics has found that there will be a 4% growth in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related roles in Scotland from 2015 to 2027. This equates to the creation of approximately 42,600 skilled jobs.

Therefore, it is of no surprise that the Scottish Government has been focused on trying to increase the number of apprenticeship opportunities available in STEM roles. In the past year alone, four out of ten modern apprenticeship starts, and the vast majority of all graduate apprenticeship starts, have been in STEM occupations.

Traditionally, securing a STEM role would require a formal qualification secured via an academic route, which can often be costly and take up to four years. Research conducted by Ekosgen has revealed that there has been a decline in the number of pupils studying and passing STEM-related subjects at schools and a decline in STEM enrolments in Scottish colleges. As a result, the traditional academic route in which to secure a STEM role may not be able to produce enough STEM-qualified individuals to meet the demands of industry.

In order to meet the demand for skilled workers, Skills Development Scotland has worked with industry and education partners to develop graduate apprenticeship schemes. These apprenticeships offer people the opportunity to gain up to a Master’s degree qualification in subjects such as civil engineering, data science and software development. The development of this model of apprenticeship has been praised by organisations such as PwC, Aegon and Universities Scotland, as a vital way in which to develop a highly-skilled workforce that will meet the demands of the growing STEM sector.

Diversity and equality

A key theme identified by the Scottish Government within their youth employment strategy is the need to develop clearer routes into apprenticeships for those from previously under-represented groups. The strategy explicitly discusses the need to increase the number of apprenticeship starts from minority ethnic communities, young disabled people, looked after children and a desire to improve the gender balance of apprenticeships (particularly those in male-dominated sectors).

According to Skills Development Scotland’s recent Apprenticeship Equality Action Plan, efforts to improve under-represented groups’ access to apprenticeships have had mixed results. Over the past four years, the number of disabled and BME (Black and minority ethnic) individuals starting modern apprenticeships has risen year on year. However, 72% of modern apprenticeship frameworks continue to have a gender imbalance of 75:25 or worse. This is particularly prevalent within the construction sector where only 2% of participants are female. Additionally, there has been a slight decrease in the number of care experienced people starting modern apprenticeships. Therefore, it is evident that whilst some progress has been made at improving the diversity of individuals starting an apprenticeship, there is still work to be done, particularly when it comes to improving gender balance.

Recent research has highlighted that diversity is essential for organisations who are looking to foster a culture of sustainable innovation. As previously discussed, future jobs are likely to be created in innovative STEM-related sectors, and therefore the need to improve under-represented groups’ access to apprenticeships will be vital to ensure that the quality of the Scottish workforce is able to meet the demand of growing innovative industry.

Final thoughts

In summary, the provision of apprenticeships has had a great deal of impact across Scotland. From developing the skill base of Scotland’s workforce to helping to improve the relationship between industry and education providers, the impact of apprenticeships goes far beyond providing young people with access to work-based learning and a formal qualification.

However, work still needs to be done to improve under-represented groups’ access to apprenticeships. Diversity has repeatedly been shown to increase workplace creativity and performance. Both of these traits will be critical in ensuring that Scotland is able to develop a workforce that can meet the needs of the innovative industries set to experience growth in the future.  


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