The debate on how UK plc can stay competitive in the global economy has resurfaced with the imminent publication of the long-awaited Leitch Review.
Two years in the making, the Treasury-backed report is expected to use evidence from a range of employer groups and other stakeholders to outline the skills profile the UK should aim to achieve by 2020 to support productivity and economic growth. It is expected to be published around the time of Gordon Brown’s Pre-Budget Report at the end of November.
Clues as to what can be expected from the full review were found in the interim report, published in December 2005, where the extent of the task was outlined. UK productivity needs to improve, as do the skills of one-third of the UK adult population who do not have basic school-leaving qualifications. More university places need to be found to educate the extra professional and technical workers who will prop up the much-heralded ‘knowledge economy’, while something also needs to done about the dearth of managers.
But in the run-up to publication, the Treasury is staying tight-lipped about the details in the final report, proffering only sweeping statements.
“The review will look at the skills situation through an economic lens, taking into consideration the skills stock, as well as its flow, and the likely evolution of the skills base,” said a spokesman.
Outside Whitehall, no-one can be sure what to expect, but there are lots of opinions on what the review should include.
At the EEF manufacturers’ organisation, senior economist Lee Hopley would like to see recommendations that lead to an education and training system that reflects the needs of business.
“We need a system that is demand-led and engaged with business,” said Hopley.
David Frost, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, agreed.
“We want to see the employer put centre stage,” he said. “Employers are concerned that the system is currently driven by training providers and colleges.”
Also vital, according to Frost, is that the current confusion over the role of the various public agencies is brought to an end. “There are too many agencies involved in training – the Learning and Skills Council, the Sector Skills Development Agency (SSDA), and the Regional Skills Partnerships. The system is impossible to navigate for employers,” he said.
A brokering service that sits between employers and the agencies might be a way forward, Frost said.
Mark Fisher, chief executive of the SSDA, agreed that Leitch must simplify the system for employers, and that colleges and training providers should be more responsive to local needs. “But in return, we hope that employers will step up to the mark and invest in the skills of their employees,” he said.
Increased employer funding in training that leads to formal qualifications and sustainable skills was one of the five demands the TUC put forward to the Leitch Review team during consultation.
Another of high priority for the union body is the introduction of new legal rights for low-skilled workers to paid time off to train, according to Iain Murray, the TUC’s senior policy officer for learning and skills.
“Adult employees without a level 2 qualification should have a statutory right to request paid time off, to tackle those employers that refuse to allow their staff to access state-subsidised paid time-off arrangements,” he said.
At the other end of the educational spectrum, Iain Cameron, head of research at the careers and diversity unit of Research Councils UK, hopes Leitch will include recommendations that work towards closing the gap between the laboratory and the commercial world.
“We would like to see the introduction of courses for PhD students that are aimed at bringing a business awareness to the work they are doing and to help them develop an entrepreneurial sense alongside their studies,” he said.
It is clear that Leitch will have his work cut out to incorporate all these differing demands. But there is one thing all the parties are agreed on: the importance of this review, and the dire consequences should the UK remain complacent about the development of skills for the future – concerns best summed up by Frost.
“Our productivity does not compare well with competing nations and our skills must improve as we move up the value chain. If they don’t,” he warned, “we are doomed to become a second-class nation.”
The Leitch Review
In 2004, Sandy Leitch, a former chief executive of Zurich Financial Services and chairman of the National Employment Panel, was commissioned by the government to lead an independent review of skills. In particular, the review was asked to examine the UK’s optimum skills mix to maximise economic growth and productivity by 2020, and consider the different trajectories of skill levels the UK might pursue.
The Leitch Review has drawn on evidence from a wide variety of sources, including employers and their representatives, unions, and organisations providing education and training.
The review team comprises officials from both the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills, with an advisory member from the Sector Skills Development Agency. The final report to the government is expected in late November.