The Knowledge Exchange Blog

The official blog of The Knowledge Exchange from Idox

Beneath the headlines: record high employment rate but what’s more important, quantity or quality?

Competition for new jobs

The UK employment rate has hit a joint record high of 76.1%, according to the latest official figures. The unemployment rate was estimated at 3.8%; it has not been lower since 1974. The economic inactivity rate was also close to a record low.

It’s not surprising that such record figures are often highlighted as ‘good news’ headlines. However, there has also been an increasing focus on quality of work over the past decade and the impact this has on people’s lives – reflecting concerns regarding developments in working practices, as highlighted by a recent City-REDI briefing paper. It has therefore been argued that the record employment rates are not necessarily representative of a ‘good news’ story.

Concerns

Concerns over working practices include the rise of the gig economy, unequal gains from flexible working, job insecurity and wage stagnation, to name but a few. The City-REDI paper outlines a number of ongoing concerns related to:

  • weak productivity growth;
  • employment insecurity and precarity;
  • in-work poverty;
  • skills shortages and skills polarisation; and
  • the impact of automation, technological change and the gig economy on the nature and experience of work.

Indeed, analysis has shown that much of the recent rise in employment is due to a ‘surge in low-value work’, which is holding back productivity growth. Many people are stuck in low paid insecure work, all of whom are contributing to the high employment rate.

Recent research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has reported that four million workers live in poverty, a rise of over half a million over five years – meaning in-work poverty has been rising even faster than employment. The causes of this increase include poorly paid jobs – particularly under temporary and part-time contracts – and a lack of progression routes for people in low-skilled work.

In addition, the rising gig economy shows no signs of slowing down, more than doubling in size over the past three years and now accounting for 4.7 million workers, according to a new report. An interesting finding of the report is that the majority of gig economy workers use this platform to supplement other forms of income, suggesting that workers are not getting enough of an income from their primary employment.

It has also been shown that advances in technology have pushed some workers into poorer quality jobs than those lost, something which cannot be addressed without some kind of policy intervention.

Health impact

Not only is poor quality work bad for the economy, it is also bad for people’s health.

A recent report which examined the impact on social inequalities of policy initiatives and reforms to extend working lives in five European countries, highlighted that working conditions are also known to influence post-retirement health, and for those with lower socioeconomic status, workplace arrangements may be causing or contributing to poor health.

A number of studies have highlighted the link between good work and health and wellbeing. As stated by a What Works for Wellbeing briefing paper, “Being in a job is good for wellbeing. Being in a ‘high quality’ job is even better for us.” It has also even been suggested that being in a poor quality job is actually worse for health and wellbeing than remaining unemployed.

Moves towards improving quality

Recent developments in the UK to address such challenges for the future and quality of work include:

  • the establishment of The Work Foundation’s Commission on Good Work in 2016, which aims to better understand the factors shaping change, and the nature and scale of opportunities and risks, so as to promote policies to achieve ‘good work’;
  • The commissioning and publication of the independent Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices in 2017 which called for policy to address the wider issue of creating quality jobs for all; and
  • the Government’s Good Work Plan, published in December 2018, which sets out the reforms planned to help improve quality of work – the first time the UK Government placed equal emphasis on the quality and quantity of work.

In addition, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) launched the UK Working Lives survey, the first robust measurement of job quality in the UK. This has since contributed to government thinking and recommendations around ‘good work’ in response to the Taylor Review.

Despite the widespread agreement over the need to adopt ‘good work’ principles, however, there remains no agreed set of indicators of exactly what it encompasses nor metrics for measuring progress towards it.

What is good work?

As the City-REDI briefing paper and other studies indicate, defining good quality work is complex as quality means different things to different people.

A range of factors contribute to different people’s perception of quality and fulfilling work, including pay, flexibility, security, health and wellbeing, nature of work and job design. The CIPD survey highlights seven dimensions of job quality:

  • pay and benefits
  • employment contacts
  • job design and nature of work
  • work-life balance
  • work relationships
  • voice and representation
  • health and wellbeing

Of course, there is no one size fits all solution.

Final thoughts

While productivity and employment rates undoubtedly remain important, they alone are clearly not enough to understand the health of the labour market; the quality of work also needs to be considered.

As shown by the visible shift from quantity to quality of work in recent years and the recent developments from the government and others, ‘good work’ is undeniably on the policy agenda. However, as the City-REDI paper suggests, there should be a focus on promoting ‘good work’ amongst the most disadvantaged groups such as the young, people with disabilities and those working in hotels and restaurants. It is also suggested that there is scope for further research on good practice in promoting ‘good work’ in establishments of different sizes and in different sectors.

As highlighted in the Taylor Review, “All work should be fair and decent with realistic scope for development and fulfilment.


You may also be interested in some of our previous employment-related posts:

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

A road less travelled: celebrating Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month – part 2

June is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month (GRTHM), which aims to raise awareness of and promote GRT history and culture.

It is widely recognised that raising awareness of different cultures is a key part of addressing prejudice and discrimination.

In this post – the second of two for GRTHM – we look at the inequalities and discrimination that GRT face across education, employment and health.  We also highlight work to address these inequalities and raise awareness of GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage.

GRT communities experience many educational and health inequalities

The recent House of Commons report, ‘Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities’, sets out a comprehensive review of the available evidence across a range of areas.

In education, Gypsy and Traveller children leave school at a much earlier age and have lower attainment levels than non-GRT children, and only a handful go on to university each year.  They also experience much higher rates of exclusions and non-attendance.

There are many reasons for this – from discrimination and bullying, to a lack of inclusion of GRT within the educational curriculum. There are also cultural issues to be addressed within the GRT community itself.

Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson has spoken about the discrimination he faced in school where a teacher refused to “waste resources” by marking his homework because he was a Traveller, who she assumed was “not going to do anything with his education anyway”.  He also discusses how many Travellers within his own community felt he was betraying his roots by attending university. This clearly illustrates the multi-faceted nature of the issue of supporting GRT children in education.  The Traveller Movement addresses this and other related issues in their recently published guide to supporting GRT children in education.

Health outcomes for GRT communities are also very poor compared to other ethnic groups.  Their life expectancy is 10 to 12 years less than that of the non-Traveller population.  Maternal health outcomes are even more shocking – with one in five Gypsy Traveller mothers experiencing the loss of a child, compared to one in 100 in the non-Traveller community.

Poor health outcomes can be partially attributed to the difficulties that many experiences when accessing or registering for healthcare services due to discrimination or language and literacy barriers.  There is also a lack of trust among GRT communities which can result in a lack of engagement with public health campaigns.

Historic fear of engagement with public services

Indeed, there is a historic wariness of public services among many in the GRT community.

In the 1800s, many Travellers had a well-placed fear of the ‘burkers’ – body-snatchers looking to provide the medical schools with bodies for dissection.  Travellers felt particularly at risk because they lived on the margins of society.  There are many Traveller stories about burkers that have been passed on from generation to generation.

Similarly, a fear of social services intervention also exists, following the forced removal of children from Traveller families.  Some were taken into care, and others were deported to be servants in Canada or Australia.

Being aware of these cultural issues, along with the historic criminalisation and continued discrimination that GRT communities face, can help health and social services to understand and empathise with the GRT community when reaching out to them.

Poor employment outcomes and a lack of target support

Gypsies and Travellers were an essential part of the economy in the 19th Century and early 20th Century.  Many were skilled tinsmiths, silversmiths, basketmakers or other crafters.  They also played an important role as seasonal agricultural workers – for example, in the berry fields of Blair and farms of the north east of Scotland.  They moved from place to place, and bringing news and selling and trading their wares.  In the days before roads and motor vehicles, they were a lifeline for rural crofting communities who may have been many days travel away from the nearest settlement.

Time has rendered many traditional Traveller occupations redundant, and today employment outcomes for GRT groups are generally poor.

While more likely to be self-employed than the general population, the 2011 England and Wales Census found that Gypsies and Irish Travellers were the ethnic groups with the lowest employment rates, highest levels of economic inactivity, as well as the highest rates of unemployment.

However, unlike other minority groups, there has been no explicit government policies that support Gypsies or Travellers to enter employment or to take up apprenticeships and/or other training opportunities.  Many Gypsies and Travellers have also reported being discriminated against by employers, making it more difficult for them to find and stay in work.

A lack of robust data

There is a lack of robust data about the different GRT groups in the UK – even something as seemingly simple as how many GRT people there are.

This is because most data collection exercises – including the Census and in the NHS – do not include distinct GRT categories.  If an option exists at all, often it conflates the different GRT ethnicities into one generic tickbox, with no way to differentiate between the different ethnic minorities.  This is an issue that is being increasingly addressed and there are plans to include a Roma category in the 2021 census.

However, there are also issues with under-reporting.  Many people from GRT communities are reluctant to disclose their ethnicity, even when that option is available to them.  This stems both from a lack of trust and the fear of discrimination.

So, while the 2011 Census recorded 58,000 people as Gypsy/Traveller in England and Wales, and a further 4,000 in Scotland, it is estimated that there are actually between 100,000 to 300,000 Gypsy/Traveller people and up to 200,000 Roma people living in the UK.

Raising awareness of GRT culture

While this all may make for some pretty depressing reading, there are some promising signs of progress.

From Corlinda Lee’s Victorian ‘Gypsy Balls’ – where the curious public could pay to come and see how a Gypsy lived and dressed, to Hamish Henderson catalysing the 1950s Scottish Folk Revival with the songs and stories of Scottish Travellers – there have been attempts to promote Gypsy and Traveller culture among the settled population.

Today, organisations and individuals such as The Traveller Movement, Friends, Families and Travellers, and Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson strive to promote awareness of and equality for the GRT community.

The recent Tobar an Keir festival held by the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University sought to illustrate traditional Traveller’s skills such as peg-making, and there is a wonderful Traveller’s exhibition – including two traditional bow tents – at the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore.

There are even more events planned for GRTHM – including an exhibition of Travellers’ art and photography at the Scottish Parliament.

The hard work may be beginning to pay off – just last week, the government announced a new national strategy to tackle the inequalities faced by Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.

Using knowledge to fight prejudice

While there is without doubt an urgent need for practical measures to address the inequalities that the GRT community face – such as an increase in the number of authorised sites available – addressing the fundamental lack of awareness and knowledge of GRT culture is a key step towards eradicating prejudice towards GRT communities.

As well as raising awareness among the general public, there is also a need to for people working in public services – from health and social services to education and even politics – to have a better awareness and understanding of Traveller culture and history, and how this affects their present day needs and experiences.

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month is an ideal opportunity to address the huge gap that exists in society’s collective knowledge about the GRT way of life, their history, culture and contribution to society. All of which can help to combat the prejudice and discrimination that they continue to face.


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Out of the classroom and into the world: the changing face of teaching in higher education

Since 2017, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) has assessed the quality of undergraduate teaching in England’s higher education providers. The TEF rates universities as Gold, Silver or Bronze, and was introduced by the government which felt that universities were too focused on research.

It’s still too soon to say what the impact of the TEF will be on universities or student choice. One commentator believes it will “…lead to distorted results, misleading rankings and a system which lacks validity and is unnecessarily vulnerable to being gamed.” Others see TEF as the opportunity to drive a culture shift in teaching, resulting in “…innovative ways of teaching, more workshops and closer relationships with industry and the communities in which they were based.”

In any case, TEF may prompt universities to rethink their approach to teaching, adopting new ideas on everything from flipped learning to the learning space itself.

Powerhouses for the knowledge economy

“Higher education, is faced with the challenge of preparing itself to fulfill its mission adequately in a world in transformation and to meet the needs and requirements of 21st century society, which will be a society of knowledge, information technology and education”.

When those words first appeared, twenty-one years ago, in a UNESCO conference report, we were only beginning to get an inkling of the dramatic changes that were about to transform the face of higher education.

Since then, the knowledge economy has mushroomed, powered by a new wave of digital technologies. Automation, robotics, digital technology, the internet of things and artificial intelligence are now driving what’s known as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Some have suggested that the impact of these changes on universities may be as profound as the effect of printing on medieval monasteries.

In many ways, higher education has risen to the challenges of the knowledge economy, and has often been at the cutting edge of technological innovations. But for many universities, the traditional model of campus-based teaching has not altered since the 19th century, and there are now calls for higher education to adapt its teaching and learning models for the new age.

New routes to higher education

Even before the dawn of the high tech era, higher education was making efforts to change the way we learn. The Open University (OU), this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, was one of the first to offer alternatives to the traditional classroom-based teaching format. The OU brought higher education into people’s living rooms via late-night programmes on television. Its summer schools and local seminars gave students opportunities to exchange ideas and enjoy the full experience of a university education. And the OU quickly embraced the possibilities offered by the internet for interactive learning. Since its establishment, the OU has enabled more than two million people worldwide to achieve their study goals – many of whom didn’t have the opportunity, flexibility or the funds to reach their potential in the traditional world of higher education.

The MOOC moves in

But time has not stood still, and the OU is now one of many providers of online education courses. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – many of them free, or cheaper than university tuition fees – provide an affordable and flexible way for people around the world to learn new skills. The range of MOOCs has grown rapidly, taking in almost every subject, from environmental engineering to English as a second language, computer science to business and management.

And MOOCs have been moving in to compete for students who might otherwise have studied at a traditional university. For example the University of California, San Diego offers a micromasters course in data science that promises to equip students with the skills that form the basis of data science. The course is fee-paying, but the university underlines the long-term value of the course, highlighting the thousands of job vacancies in data science. The course website also includes endorsements from companies pledging that applications from individuals who have completed the course will have definite advantages over rival candidates. Students can take the course at their own pace, completing it whenever they choose, and located almost anywhere in the world. In addition, the course offers a pathway to Rochester Institute of Technology’s Master of Science degree in Data Science.

The advent of MOOCs has proved extremely popular, and today distinguished universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with more than 800 institutes of higher education around the world, now offer their own MOOCs.

Partnership approaches to skills development

As knowledge becomes the main driver of economic growth, employers are demanding higher level skills. A 2018 report published by Universities UK argued that universities are extremely well placed to help business and the wider economy to meet these challenges. But the report also acknowledged the need to change and adapt:

“The linear model of education–employment–career will no longer be sufficient. The pace of change is accelerating, necessitating more flexible partnerships, quicker responses, different modes of delivery and new combinations of skills and experience. Educators and employers need to collaborate more closely, and develop new and innovative partnerships and flexible learning approaches.”

In many cases, this is already happening. The University of East Anglia, for example is promoting entrepreneurialism through its in-house enterprise centre. The centre is home to several SMEs, and provides a space for students to collaborate with commercial firms, and to discover, develop and apply their entrepreneurial skills.

Another good example of university-employer partnerships is Coventry University’s Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering. This hi-tech production facility is a collaboration between the university and Unipart Manufacturing Group, which manufactures exhausts and other car components. It also provides training for students, with their time spent working on campus, as well as in workshops and at the manufacturing facility. In addition, this ‘faculty on the factory floor’ provides jobs – many students go straight from their degree courses to being full-time employees.

The changing face of teaching

Universities are central to knowledge creation and exchange, and we’ll be relying on them to be the engines of the knowledge economy. New approaches to teaching can ensure they rise to the challenge.


Read more from our blog on higher education:

How can the UK Government support our rural entrepreneurs?

Rural Wales, house by a river

By Steven McGinty

Rural businesses play a significant role in the UK economy. Yet, policymakers often overlook their contribution and, as such, have failed to realise the economic opportunities in many of our rural areas.

Last year, University of Essex researcher Anupriya Misra presented an insightful webinar (register to hear a recording of the webinar) outlining some of the key challenges facing rural entrepreneurs, as well as the likely drivers of growth.

The make-up of the rural economy

Research by the House of Lords Library shows that the rural economy accounts for approximately 20% of England’s total economic activity, an estimated £229 billion.

Unsurprisingly, one of the key differences between city and rural economies is the size of the agriculture, forestry, and fishing sectors. In England, they amount to 2% of the Gross Value Added (GVA) of the rural economy. However, in rural areas classed as ‘sparsely populated’ this figure significantly increases, with these industries accounting for 32% of registered local businesses.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, agriculture, forestry, and fishing play a more prominent role in the rural economy. In Scotland, 13 out of its 32 local authorities have more than 50% of their population living in rural areas, with these councils contributing 20.6% of Scotland’s GVA. In Northern Ireland, 25% of VAT registered businesses are involved in agriculture, forestry, and fishing, and outside of Belfast, it’s the largest industry in each local authority area.

The challenges for rural entrepreneurs

Many rural businesses have a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and the products they sell make up a significant proportion of UK exports. For example, 25% of Britain’s goods exporters are registered in rural areas. Nevertheless, these rural entrepreneurs can face barriers their counterparts living in cities are far less likely to experience. This includes:

  • Slow broadband – Online rural businesses can be particularly affected by slow broadband speeds. In addition, businesses involved in the tourism industry are affected, as free wi-fi is becoming an increasingly important part of the visitor experience.
  • Skills shortages – Rural businesses in sparsely populated areas can struggle to recruit the right staff, and their existing staff can experience challenges accessing training and development opportunities.
  • Poor transport infrastructure – Poor infrastructure can make it challenging for rural businesses to recruit, as well as connect to suppliers and customers in larger urban centres.
  • Difficulty accessing finance – Lower land values in rural areas can also limit a business’s ability to provide collateral for loans.

Why do some rural areas do better than others?

An interesting question raised by webinar presenter Anupriya Misra is why do some rural areas outperform others? In her view, a mixture of supply and demand factors impact on an area’s economic performance. For instance, having access to high skilled labour, good transport links to cities, beneficial planning laws, and business support are very important for supporting rural economic growth.

Additionally, rural areas which have a wealthy local population or have products with strong global demand are also likely to be high performing.

Business advice and networking

A key theme to emerge from the webinar was the important role business advice and networking plays for rural entrepreneurs. Fledgling rural businesses will often need a range of support, including help to develop their business management skills (such as basic accountancy skills), legal advice, as well as guidance on grant writing and the funding opportunities available to them.

Entrepreneurs looking to grow their business, will need other forms of support, from help to develop an online marketing strategy to advice on providing great customer service. Informal networks, and opportunities to connect with other business owners, can also be an invaluable resource.

In 2012, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) set up the Rural Growth Network (RGN) Pilot Initiative to help rural areas overcome the barriers they faced.  This included projects in Cumbria, Heart of the South West (HotSW), North East, Swindon and Wiltshire, and Warwickshire. In practice, this involved creating a network of ‘enterprise hubs’, offering rural businesses a mix of premises, business, and infrastructure support.

An evaluation of the initiative highlighted that introducing enterprise hubs brought several benefits to rural entrepreneurs. 70% of start-up founders surveyed reported an improvement in their business skills and half reported that they improved their networking with other firms. In financial terms, the net economic impact of the RGN pilots, in terms of Gross Value Added (GVA), was estimated to be around £16.5 million, with £56.6 million expected over a further three years. And, for every £1 invested by Defra, £1.50 was created in net GVA.

Researcher Anupriya Misra concluded the seminar by suggesting that the rural economy could be improved by following Defra’s evidence and creating a new network of rural enterprise hubs, which provide business skills and support that meets the needs of local communities.


Follow us on Twitter to find out which topics are interesting our policy research team.

You may also be interested in Research Online, a valuable resource for research and analysis, covering topics such as entrepreneurship, employment, learning and skills, and careers education. 

Reeling in the year: a look back at 2018

It’s been another busy year for The Knowledge Exchange Blog. We’ve covered a variety of subjects, from housing and the environment to education and planning. So as the year draws to a close, now’s a good time to reflect on some of the subjects we’ve been blogging about during 2018.

Bibliotheraphy, walkability and family learning

We started the year with health and wellbeing in mind. Our first blog post of 2018 highlighted the increasing application of “bibliotherapy”:

“The Reading Agency’s Books on Prescription scheme has been running nationally in England since 2013 and since it started has been expanded to cover Books on Prescription for common mental health conditions, Books on Prescription for dementia, Reading Well for young people and Reading Well for long term conditions. 635,000 people are estimated to have benefited from the schemes.”

In February, we blogged about family learning, where parents engage in learning activities with their children. This can involve organised programmes such as Booksmart, but activities such as reading to children or singing with them can also be described as family learning:

Research from the National Literacy Trust, suggests that “parental involvement in their child’s reading has been found to be the most important determinant of language and emergent literacy”.

In recent years, growing numbers of cities and towns have introduced “shared spaces”, where pedestrians, cyclists and drivers share the same, deregulated space. As we reported in March, the practice has proved divisive, with supporters claiming that shared spaces can improve the urban environment, revitalise town centres, and reduce congestion, while opponents believe that shared space schemes – particularly the removal of kerbs and crossings – are dangerous and exclusionary for vulnerable groups of pedestrians, people with disabilities and those with reduced mobility.

In April, we took the opportunity to promote the Idox Information Service, highlighting a selection of the hundreds of items added to our database since the beginning of 2018. All members of the Idox Information Service have access to the Idox database, which contains thousands of reports and journal articles on public and social policy.

Voters, apprentices and city trees

Local elections in May prompted us to blog about the voting rights of those with age related degenerative mental conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“Many people with dementia still hold strong political feelings, and know their own opinion when it comes to voting for political parties or in a referendum. However, the process of voting can often present them with specific challenges. It is up to local authority teams and their election partners to make the process as transparent and easy for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s as possible. Specific challenges include not spoiling the ballot, and the ability to write/ see the ballot paper and process the information quickly enough.”

A year after the launch of the government’s Apprenticeship Levy in June, we highlighted a report from the Reform think tank which suggested that significant reforms were needed to improve England’s apprenticeship system. Among the recommended changes were a renewed focus on quality over quantity, removal of the 10% employer co-investment requirement and making Ofqual the sole quality assurance body for maintaining apprenticeship standards.

The shortage of affordable housing continues to exercise the minds of policy makers, and in July we blogged about its impact on the private rented sector:

“In many cases people view the private rented sector as being a stop gap for those not able to get social housing, and not able to afford a deposit for a mortgage. Although in many instances they may be right, the demographic of those renting privately now is changing, and becoming more and more varied year on year, with many young professionals and families with children now renting privately.”

The long, hot summer of 2018 was one to remember, but its effect on air quality in urban areas underlined the need to combat the pollution in our air. In August, we blogged about an innovation that could help to clear the air:

“Designed by a German startup, a City Tree is a “living wall” of irrigated mosses with the pollution-absorbing power of almost 300 trees. A rainwater-collection unit is built into the City Tree, as well as a nutrient tank and irrigation system, allowing the assembly to water itself.”

Planning, polarisation and liveable cities

September saw another highly successful Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference. It opened with a thought-provoking presentation by Greg Lloyd, professor Emeritus at Ulster University, and visiting professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who challenged delegates to consider what might happen if the current planning system were to be abolished altogether, to clear the way for a new and more fit-for-purpose planning system.

In October, we focused on the ever-increasing job polarisation affecting the labour market:

In the EU, data shows that between 2002-2014 medium skilled routine jobs declined by 8.9%, whilst high skilled roles rose by 5.4%, and low skilled jobs grew marginally (0.1%). As a consequence, wage inequalities have grown.”

More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, presenting significant challenges to local authorities who have to try and make their cities work for everyone. In November, we reported from The Liveable City conference in Edinburgh, which showcased ideas from the UK and Denmark on how to make cities more attractive for residents and visitors:

“A great example of the reinvention of a post-industrial area came from Ian Manson, Chief Executive of Clyde Gateway, Scotland’s biggest and most ambitious regeneration programme. When it comes to recovering from the demise of old industries, the East End of Glasgow has seen many false dawns. As Ian explained, when Clyde Gateway was launched ten years ago, the local community were sceptical about the programme’s ambitions. But they were also ready to engage with the project. A decade on, the area has undergone significant physical generation, but more importantly this has taken place in partnership with the local people.”

Although much has been made of the government’s claim that austerity is coming to an end, many local authorities are still struggling to provide services within tight financial constraints. One of our final blogs this year reported on local councils that are selling their assets to generate revenue:

“In a bid to increase affordable housing supply, for example, Leicester City Council has sold council land worth more than £5m for less than £10 as part of deals with housing associations.”

Brexit means….

Overshadowing much of public policy in 2018 has been the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Our blog posts have reflected the uncertainties posed by Brexit with regard to science and technology, local authority funding and academic research.

As we enter 2019, those uncertainties remain, and what actually happens is still impossible to predict. As always, we’ll continue to blog about public policy and practice, and try to make sense of the important issues, based on evidence, facts and research.

To all our readers, a very happy Christmas, and our best wishes for a peaceful and prosperous new year.

Gender pay gap at universities could get even worse – here’s why

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This guest blog was written by Nisreen Ameen, Lecturer at Queen Mary University London.

Britain has one of the largest gender pay gaps in the European Union, with women earning roughly 21% less than men. This means that women in UK universities today are still earning less than their male colleagues. So although laws on equal pay have been in place for more than 40 years, there is still a large gender pay gap in UK universities.

The difference in hourly pay between men and women is 15% in top UK universities and 37% in other universities. What’s more, men have most of the top jobs in UK universities, while women have more of the lower-paid jobs.

And this “gender pay gap” may keep getting wider if women aren’t supported to develop their digital skills. This is because women tend to have less advanced digital skills than men – skills that are increasingly in demand for university lecturer roles. And as universities around rely more extensively on digital technology, they need employees who have creative digital skills – which means women are more likely to miss out on jobs, promotions and pay increases.

Wanted: technical talent

The use of technology is now just part of the day job for anyone involved in teaching and learning in universities. Universities use technology to teach and communicate with students online – which can help to improve a student’s learning experience. Staff are also expected to use online learning and mobile learning platforms to teach, assess and talk to students in a virtual environment.

Universities also plan to use more advanced technology. Gamification is on the rise in universities. This is where universities personalise a student’s learning, using game design thinking in non-game applications. Wearable devices, such as an Apple Watch or Google Glass, can also encourage learners to get more involved in the subject. This type of technology will most likely be used more in universities over the coming years.

And as women in higher education are generally less likely to be skilled in using these technologies, they may well be left behind – widening the gender pay gap in higher education – while also making it harder for women to progress in their careers.

Digital skills divide

Our research which looks at the gender gap in smartphone adoption and use in Arab countries shows there is a wide gap in the way men and women use technology in some parts of the world. And we found similar patterns in the UK. Men have more advanced digital skills than women, and women are underrepresented in the technology sector, specifically in the digital sector in education.

This “digital divide” begins at a very early age in school. It continues into higher education – in the UK there is one of the highest gender gaps in technology-related courses among all university courses in the world.

Technology is advancing quickly, so academics and others working in higher education constantly have to update their skills. Without these skills, women in the sector are at a disadvantage when it comes to promotion and pay rises. So it’s more important than ever for universities to provide training and other programmes that help women develop their digital skills.

Closing the gender gap in digital skills would remove one factor contributing to the gender pay gap in UK universities. It would increase the chances of women being employed in the sector and make it easier for them to develop their careers. Tapping into female talent in technology would bring huge benefits to universities.

And above all, it would help to close the digital skills gap – while helping to build a more equal and fairer society.The Conversation


Nisreen Ameen, Lecturer in Information Technology Management, Queen Mary University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Making social mobility a reality: the Robertson Trust’s Journey to Success programme

The Sutton Trust, which works to combat educational inequality, has described low social mobility as the biggest social challenge of our times:

“The income gap between the richest and poorest in society continues to widen, while education opportunities remain overwhelmingly dominated by children from the most privileged homes.”

Education can make all the difference for people struggling to improve their lives. But young people from many disadvantaged areas who might see college or university as an escape route from low income employment are encountering significant barriers to education. And location can aggravate the problem. The Social Mobility Commission’s 2017 report found that just 10% of disadvantaged teenagers from Barnsley, Hastings and Eastbourne make it to university, while the figure for Kensington and Chelsea is 50%.

In Scotland, a 2015 Sutton Trust report on widening access to education found that, despite offering free tuition, the country had the worst record in the UK when it comes to getting students from poorer backgrounds into university. The report noted that:

“…despite improvements, young disadvantaged Scottish people are four times less likely to go to university than their wealthier counterparts. In England the same figure is 2.4, while in Wales and Northern Ireland, poorer students are three times more likely to do so.”

The Scottish Government claims that the situation is now improving. In March, Scotland’s higher education minister, Shirley-Anne Somerville reported a 13% increase in the number of Scots from the most deprived  communities getting places to study at a Scottish university:

“That means over 600 additional people from the most deprived communities being accepted to study at university.”

 The Robertson Trust: a journey to success

One organisation trying to overcome the barriers facing disadvantaged young people is the Robertson Trust. The trust is Scotland’s largest independent funder, awarding over £16m per year to Scottish charities. Its four main objectives are:

  • improving outcomes for individuals and communities
  • improving capacity of third sector organisations to deliver impact to their beneficiaries
  • building and using evidence to inform policy and practice
  • developing greater understanding of the trust’s role as a funder

Since 1992, the Robertson Trust has provided scholarships, bursary awards and grants to individuals, and has been working with colleges and universities to remove barriers to participation in education.

More recently, the trust has developed a dedicated training and mentoring programme called Journey to Success. The programme supports over 600 higher education students at any one time with a bursary and personal development programme.

Students are nominated by their school or university for a place on the programme, and each year around 160 students join the Journey to Success. Once accepted, students receive a bursary of £4000 a year (£2,800 if they live at home). But the bursary is just the start of a long-term support programme that includes the development of skills to support students in their future careers. This is achieved through residential weekends, university workshops, internships and mentoring.

The Journey to Success programme also supports students in undertaking volunteering placements and in providing funding for self-development awards in particular activities Recent examples include working on a hospital ship on Lake Tanzania and developing British Sign Language (BSL) signs for scientific terms.

Making social mobility work

The Journey to Success programme is living up to its name. In 2015/16, 88% of the programme’s graduates received a degree classification of 2:1 or above, and most go on to employment in a graduate job or further study.

Clearly, the programme can only support a fraction of the young people who have the ability but not the means to further their education. But its success demonstrates the benefits of giving social mobility a helping hand.

As Gordon Hunt, the Robertson Trust’s Head of Scholarship explains:

“…the aim of the Journey to Success programme “is to give students from disadvantaged backgrounds the support and guidance that will help them to overcome the barriers they face in fulfilling their potential.”


You may also be interested in reading some of our previous blog posts on the subject of social mobility:

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Do we really need a middle class? How the UK Government should respond to the challenge of job polarisation

Women sitting at her desk doing paperwork

By Steven McGinty

At the beginning of the year, former government advisor and HR expert Kevin Green gave a TEDx talk entitled “Why our jobs matter now more than ever before”.

In his talk, he explains that technologies such as artificial intelligence have transformed the labour market and, unlike previous industrial revolutions, old jobs are not necessarily being replaced by better forms of work.

Instead, he warns, the economy is experiencing ever-increasing ‘job polarisation’. In this labour market, highly skilled, in-demand workers benefit from higher wages and flexible working conditions, whilst middle-income earners are finding their jobs disappear, and competition grows for low skilled, often manual work.

What does the research say about this phenomenon?

In 2017, the OECD published the report ‘Future of Skills and Work’, which highlighted that labour markets are polarising within some G20 countries. In the EU, data shows that between 2002-2014 medium skilled routine jobs declined by 8.9%, whilst high skilled roles rose by 5.4%, and low skilled jobs grew marginally (0.1%).

As a consequence, wage inequalities have grown. In particular, the report found that countries experiencing skills shortages are paying higher rates for staff with desirable skills and that greater competition for low skilled jobs is holding down wages for the bottom half of earners.

Greater regional inequalities are also noted as a possibility, as employers are likely to locate in areas with a high concentration of high-skilled workers – which are often very different to the areas experiencing job losses.

However, the report does suggest that some groups may benefit. For example, it highlights that disadvantaged millennials, who have grown up with technology, may have an advantage over older, less tech-savvy workers.

Is technology the only factor leading to job polarisation?

Economist Andrea Salvatori has conducted extensive research and argues that job polarisation in the UK is far more complex. In a 2015 paper for the Institute of Labour Economics, he argued that although technology is a factor, the growth in high skilled jobs can be explained by the increase in the number of graduates since the 1990s.  Similarly, in a 2016 paper, he found that routine employment did not decline in organisations which had adopted technology and that workplaces which specialise in high skilled employment had grown dramatically, from 30% to almost 50% between 1998 and 2011.

One theory highlighted is that of MIT scholar David Autor, who suggests that while technology might be replacing workers in certain tasks, it’s also complementing them in other areas which are more cognitive and difficult to automate.

In addition, Professor Maarten Goos has suggested that offshoring and the global competition for labour has been a factor. In his view, companies have taken advantage of lower wages in foreign countries, particularly in middle earning jobs such as back-office administrative functions and in customer service positions. Highly skilled jobs have been less affected as the supply of skills is less readily available.

What are the social consequences of job polarisation?

Mr Green’s Tedx Talk is less about the economics of job polarisation, and more about the social issues which may stem from this divided economy. He recounts his own experience, describing himself as a ‘late bloomer,’ and recounting his journey from an administrative middle-class job in Wandsworth council to gaining promotion through further study.

For him, the real concern is that the chasm between low and high skilled jobs means that it will be increasingly difficult for some groups in society to progress in their careers. In particular, he highlights graduates looking for their first positions, as well as mothers returning to the labour market after a period out to raise children.

Research has also shown that increased job polarisation might be leading to discontent amongst low skilled workers, and that this could partially explain recent political divisions between those living in large metropolitan cities and those in left behind regions.

So, how should the UK Government respond?

Academics Dr David Hope and Dr Angelo Martelli recently investigated the role labour market institutions play in tackling wage inequality in modern economies. By analysing the economic data for 18 OECD countries from 1970 to 2007, they attempted to prove that national labour market systems could protect wages. They found that:

strong labour market institutions, in the form of coordinated wage setting, employment protection legislation, and high wage bargaining coverage, reduces the effect of the expansion of employment in knowledge-intensive services on income inequality.”

In addition, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation argues that there is a need to tackle inequality locally by focusing on the bottom of the labour market, particularly by improving working conditions for low-skilled workers.

Mr Green takes a similar viewpoint, and argues the solution is a ‘revolution in lifelong learning’. This means creating labour market institutions that help people trapped in low skilled work, so that they are aware of the opportunities available to them, and potentially providing funding to support them on their journey.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Five current challenges facing Further Education

As well as developing the careers of school-leavers and adults and contributing to the economy, further education (FE) also plays a crucial, but unsung role in our daily lives. As one college chief executive has observed:

“Over the past 25 years, we have quietly gone about our work producing the people that matter most to our communities – those that build our houses, fix our boilers, our computers and our cars, care for our children and our parents, ensure the planes that take us on holiday are safe and look after us when we get to our destination, cook our special meals, entertain us live and on TV, enrich our lives with their art, cut our hair and make us even more beautiful!”

But now the sector is facing key challenges that are likely to change the face of further education in the years ahead.

  1. Policy reforms

According to the Institute for Government (IfG), since the 1980s there have been:

  • 28 major pieces of legislation related to vocational, FE and skills training
  • Six different ministerial departments with overall responsibility for education
  • 48 secretaries of state with relevant responsibilities

The FE sector has proved to be resilient and adaptable to these changes, but many believe this instability has left the sector unfit for purpose.  In 2016, the Sainsbury review of technical education recommended changes to England’s FE system to make it less complex. These were taken up by the government, which introduced a new Post-16 Skills Plan. The reforms will replace thousands of qualifications with fifteen new technical education pathways. The new ‘T-Levels’, in subjects such as construction, childcare and hairdressing, will be rolled out by 2022.

It’s too early to say what effect the reforms will have, but some already have misgivings. A senior civil servant at the Department for Education has advised deferring the start date for T-Levels, while the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner argued the changes would not make up for “years of cuts” to the FE sector.

  1. Funding pressures

The Social Market Foundation reported in 2017 that, since 2010, the adult skills budget in England has fallen in cash terms. “Alongside this reduction, the Institute for Fiscal studies (IFS) has shown that 16–18 education spending has reduced.”

Funding pressures on FE are likely to continue. In August, the Treasury instructed Whitehall departments with non-protected budgets, including FE,  to identify areas of “potential savings”. David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said “The news that the chancellor may be looking for further funding cuts from unprotected departmental budgets is very worrying for colleges. College students and staff have already taken on too much pain from the funding cuts in further education over the last decade.”

The government has announced a review of post-18 education funding, including further education. The review will be supported by an independent panel, led by Philip Augar, and is expected to conclude in early 2019.

  1. New apprenticeships

The apprenticeship levy was introduced on 6 April 2017. It requires all UK employers with a wages bill of over £3 million per year to invest 0.5% of their bill into apprenticeships.

Once they start making payments, employers can access the funds through a Digital Apprenticeship Service (DAS) account that allows them to pay for apprentice training, choose the training provider they want to provide the training, and find apprentices for their vacancies. Initially, this service is only available to those employers paying the levy. However, the government aims to extend access to all employers by 2020.

In May 2018, the Reform think tank published an assessment of the apprenticeship levy’s impact in its first year of operation. The report found that in the six months after the levy was introduced, the number of people starting an apprenticeship was 162,400 – over 40% lower than the same period in the previous year. Concerns about the levy were heightened in May 2018 with official figures revealing a 40% drop in apprentice starts across all industries in February, compared with the previous year. The statistics prompted further calls for reform of the levy. However, the Learning and Work Institute (L&WI) has argued that it is still too soon to judge the new system.

  1. Devolving FE

Central government continues to control FE funding, but local authorities and Combined Authorities are pressing for greater devolution of the adult skills budget. City mayors are also showing interest in bringing more of FE and skills under local control.

At the same time, the FE sectors in, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have been experiencing their own challenges:

  • College funding in Wales has remained tight over the last few years, but a 2017 report from Colleges Wales highlighted the economic impact of FE in Wales. It reported a return of £7.90 for every £1 spent, an average annual return on investment of 24%.
  • A report by Viewforth Consulting report estimated that the FE sector generated over £524 million of output in Northern Ireland from college and student off-campus expenditure. A new further education strategy was launched in 2016, but the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly has presented the FE sector with additional uncertainties.
  • Between 2012 and 2014, 25 colleges in Scotland merged to create ten new regional ‘super colleges’ under a Scottish Government programme to make the sector more efficient and ‘responsive to the needs of students and local economies’. According to the Scottish Funding Council, the merger programme cost £72m, but delivered annual savings of more than £52m. However, Audit Scotland’s 2017 review of further education in Scotland found that student numbers at Scotland’s colleges fell to the lowest level for almost a decade. Performance figures on Scotland’s colleges published by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) in February 2018 show that the success rate in almost two-thirds of Scottish colleges has dropped.
  1. The future

It’s clear that funding issues and policy changes will continue to affect FE in the UK. But other challenges are also looming.

The Social Market Foundation has highlighted market developments likely to present competitive threats to the FE sector. These include more employers moving in to provide training traditionally delivered by the FE sector, and the advance of educational technology, encouraging more learners to self-direct.

As for Brexit, the Association of Colleges believes the impact of the UK leaving the European Union may be less in FE than in other areas of national life,  but forecasts that Brexit has the potential to bring big changes to the demand for skills and training.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. 

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

A different perspective: supporting neurodiversity in the workplace

“We need to admit that there is no standard brain” Dr Thomas Armstrong

It is estimated that over 1 in 100 people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum and awareness of the concept of ‘neurodiversity’ is rising. It recognises that autism, and other conditions that affect how people learn and process information – such as attention deficit disorders, dyslexia, dyspraxia, or dyscalculia – are a form of neurological difference, rather than being assumed to be a disability.

However, there remains a significant employment gap – where people on the autistic spectrum are often willing and able to work, but struggle to find and maintain employment.

Employment rates for adults with autism are considerably lower than for other groups. For example, only 32% of adults with autism in the UK are in some kind of paid employment. This compares with about 80% for non-disabled people and 47% for disabled people as a whole.

There are also many people on the autistic spectrum who work, but are struggling to maintain employment or to progress their careers due to discrimination, lack of understanding and lack of effective support.

Barriers to employment

Many autistic people are simply brilliant people – highly educated, highly capable, detail-oriented, yet unemployed” James Mahoney, Executive Director and Head of Autism at Work for JPMorgan Chase.

A lack of awareness and understanding means that some employers are fearful of the behaviour traits of people with autism, and the effect of these on their business, resources and other employees. Hiring processes, management practices and workspaces also tend to unconsciously favour ‘neurotypical’ employees.

Research has shown that standard recruitment processes are a key barrier to employment for people on the autistic spectrum.  Processes such as writing a CV, completing an application form, attending an interview, or doing a work-place assessment all rely heavily on social and communication skills. It may be difficult for people on the autistic spectrum to respond to open questions, or to abstract, hypothetical situations. They may be prone to conversational tangents, be overly honest about their weaknesses, or have difficulties in understanding body language and maintaining appropriate eye contact.

‘Good communication skills’ and ‘ability to work as part of a team’ are commonly listed as essential criteria in job descriptions – even though in practice, these skills may not be essential to the role. Thus, those on the autistic spectrum may find themselves ‘screened out’ of selection processes.

The workplace itself can also be challenging for people on the autistic spectrum. Office etiquette, social interaction and the sensory environment (such as sounds, lights, smells, interruptions) may present difficulties. People on the autistic spectrum may also suffer from anxiety or low self-esteem, which can impact upon their working lives.

Thinking differently

“Asperger’s syndrome provides a plus – it makes people more creative. People with it are generally hyper-focused, very persistent workaholics who tend to see things from detail to global rather than looking at the bigger picture first and then working backwards, as most people do.”  Professor Michael Fitzgerald, Trinity College Dublin

Despite the challenges that they may face, research has shown that neurodivergent individuals also demonstrate a number of strengths of particular relevance to employment.

People on the autistic spectrum are often good problem solvers and innovative thinkers, with particular strengths in analytical thinking, memory, pattern recognition, and attention to detail. Some often have an exceptional ability to assimilate and retain detailed information, which can result in highly specific interests and technical abilities in specific areas of work.

Likewise, individuals with ADHD can have strong visual spatial reasoning and creative thinking abilities, and can be hyper-focused, passionate and courageous. Indeed, many of the world’s top entrepreneurs – including Sir Richard Branson – have ADHD.

As such, forward-thinking employers are beginning to recognise that they are missing out on a large pool of potential talent. Large-scale corporations like Microsoft, JPMorgan, EY, SAP and Ford have all recently instigated neurodiversity initiatives. There has also been an increase in the number of small companies that employ almost exclusively autistic people – such as IT and compliance consulting business Auticon – and specialist employment agencies – such as Specialisterne – that help match autistic candidates with employers looking for specialist technical skills.

What can employers do?

Traditional workplaces are built to suit “neurotypical” people. However, employees who fall slightly outside the range of what is considered typical often have valuable skills that employers need, such as lateral thinking or innovative problem-solving. It’s necessary to make adjustments for people on an individual basis to ensure they can perform their best in their role.” Ray Coyle, UK CEO of Auticon

There are a number of things that employers can do to help support employees with autism in the workplace. Many of these are low-cost and easy to implement, and have the potential to benefit all employees. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) recently published guidance for employers on becoming ‘neurodiversity smart’ – covering areas such as recruitment, induction, management and provision of on-the-job support for neurodivergent employees.

They recommend considering alternatives to recruitment interviews that focus on the ability to perform the job role to ensure that organisations are not unintentionally screening out neurodivergent individuals. These may include work trials, work samples, practical assessments, and mini apprenticeships. They also suggest providing candidates with detailed information about what to expect, being clear about the purpose of assessments and being aware of the bias of ‘first impressions’ and the limits of interviews to judge on-the-job performance.

In the workplace, suitable adaptations may include enabling employees who are disturbed by open-plan offices to wear earphones or face a wall, or to work from home where possible. Other adaptations may include the provision of formal or informal coaching or mentoring, regular breaks and access to flexitime, training and support for managers and colleagues, access to quiet spaces, flexibility regarding communication preferences, and clarification of any ‘unwritten’ organisational rules or office etiquette.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ response. What is key is that the support provided is both personalised to suit the needs of the individual employee, and sustained over time. It is also important that a culture is fostered where it is easy for employees to disclose their condition, to be open to suggestions for adaptations that suit each individual’s needs, and to raise wider awareness and understanding of neurodiversity among employees.

Neurodiversity smart

Making reasonable adjustments is a cost-effective benefit to society; we also have a moral and ethical duty to act inclusively. We could view the pool of potential employees with neurodiverse conditions as untapped talent, rather than an employment burdenBritish Psychological Society, 2017

The UK government has also committed to halving the disability employment gap by 2020. In order to achieve this, the number of autistic people in employment will have to double. Employers also have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.

However, becoming ‘neurodiversity smart’ is not just a legal or moral obligation – it is also essential if organisations are to harness the skills of this significant pool of untapped talent.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our article on ‘Girls with autism‘.

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