My Lords, I, too, thank the most reverend Primate for the opportunity to address a subject that, as he said, is fundamental to our nation’s future. In the time available, I will restrict myself to one area in which I can claim some personal experience.
The last time the subject of skills was debated in your Lordships’ House was almost two years ago on
“the special genius of the United Kingdom for great public sector imagination; for a commitment to the idea and ideal of public life”.—[
She also described the BBC and the Open University as two examples of that public sector imagination in action. Two years on, I am forced to question whether the commitment she referred to still truly exists. For example, were it not for the care and attention shown in this House, it is very possible that the BBC would simply be allowed to atrophy, but right now I would like to focus your Lordships’ attention on that other great leap of imagination, the Open University. It is an institution to which I am certain everyone present would pay at least lip service. I declare my interest here, which is a pretty passionate one, as both a former chancellor of that institution and the beneficiary of a part-time education, although in my day it was simply called night school.
I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of the speakers in today’s debate entered a world of work in which they could confidently put education behind them, having developed a single skill set that would last a lifetime. That no longer remains remotely the case. I spent yesterday morning, along with a number of other Members of your Lordships’ House, at techUK, in conversation with almost 50 representatives of the tech industry, from both large and small companies, who offered us the self-same message. They said that the prospects for their companies, and therefore this country’s future, were being seriously hampered by a shortage of skilled and confident people. Their critical need was not just for more young and talented graduates, but for people already within the workforce to be upskilled and re-trained to contribute to what is a rapidly changing working environment.
That public imagination I mentioned earlier created the world’s first distance-learning institution, an organisation perfectly suited to addressing the reskilling challenge I have just referred to. But through a process that I can only describe as benign neglect on the part of successive Governments, the mission of the OU to address exactly the type of crisis we face and give people of all ages a second chance of contributing to a modern economy has become seriously endangered.
Funding changes under different UK Governments since 2007 have led directly, in just the past five years, to a 50% fall in the number of part-time learners in England. This is significantly worse than for those nations and regions which have avoided the same funding changes. In data terms, the OU now has 554 students per million of the population in England, whereas in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, the equivalent figures are 764, 861 and 1,211 respectively. In fact, England accounts for 90% of the total decline in part-time higher education in the UK. Will the Minister take a crack at explaining those discrepancies and the fact that there are over double the proportion of part-time students in Scotland compared with England? What do they know that we south of the border seem to have failed to grasp? Is there simply a greater determination in the devolved Governments to enhance learning opportunities for people of all ages?
So let us look again at the problem. If the Government agree with the most ambitious of our companies that we have a serious and growing skills gap, then a potentially transformative step would be to develop a system of personalised learning accounts, offering financial support to employees as they seek skills training closely tailored, by industry, to their needs. Unlike the Government’s apprenticeship scheme, this could drive an overdue culture change in lifelong learning and help deliver the Government’s industrial policy. This concept was laid out in compelling detail by the vice-chancellor of the OU, Peter Horrocks, in a recent article which I would thoroughly commend to the Minister and his officials.
In a world in which the World Economic Forum can report that last year, China had 4.7 million new STEM graduates, as against 568,000 in the US, with the UK not even making it on to the list, we surely cannot afford to leave a sizeable proportion of our workforce cut adrift by the inexorable march of technology, most particularly when we have a world-class institution wishing to be encouraged and repurposed to address what is so clearly a developing crisis.
Finally, all of this goes well beyond cold economic considerations. For me, it was an almost unimaginable privilege to spend five years presenting degrees and diplomas to people who in many cases had worked for years on their kitchen tables at the start of a journey towards improved lives for themselves and their families. Why on earth would any Government not wish to play a part in making that opportunity possible for the very greatest number of our fellow citizens?