Government announces £2.5bn lifelong learning package

Boris Johnson at Exeter College where he announced the lifelong learning plan. Photo: Finnbarr Webster/PA Wire/PA Images

The government has announced plans to offer adults without an A-level or equivalent a free college course to boost their employability in the post-Covid landscape.

The government will fund the college courses – which can be taken at a time and location to suit the learner – as part of its National Skills Fund, a £2.5bn package designed to “get people working again” after the pandemic subsides.

The ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’ will be made available from April 2021. The government also said it would make higher education loans more flexible, allowing learners to space out their study across their lifetimes and careers, “to support people to retrain for the jobs of the future”.

Launching the new lifelong learning package today, the Prime Minister reiterated chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent comments that not every job can be saved.

“What we can do is give people the skills to find and create new and better jobs. So my message today is that at every stage of your life, this government will help you get the skills you need,” he said.

“We’re transforming the foundations of the skills system so that everyone has the chance to train and retrain.”

The government currently pays for a first A-level equivalent qualification up to the age of 23, but this is being extended to all ages for a series of courses deemed to be of value to employers, a list of which will be made available in the coming weeks.

Apprenticeship opportunities will also be increased, with more funding for smaller employers taking on apprentices, and greater flexibility in how their training is structured – especially in sectors such as construction and creative industries where there are more varied employment patterns.

The government pointed to statistics from Germany and Canada where the proportion of adults who hold a technical qualification is 20% and 34% respectively, and these adults tend to earn more than the average graduate.

Finance will be made available for shorter-term studies rather than only to those studying in one three- or four-year block. It will also be easier to transfer credits between colleges and universities or to break study up into segments.

These measures will not reverse the devastating impact of a decade of cuts, and will not give workers the skills and support they need in the months ahead.” – Kate Green, shadow education secretary

A further announcement is the rollout of digital skills bootcamps after successful pilots in Greater Manchester and West Midlands. The government’s online skills toolkit has also been expanded to include a further 62 courses.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green argued that the measures were too little too late, however.

“A week ago Labour called for a national retraining strategy fit for the crisis Britain faces, but what the government proposes is simply a mix of reheated old policies and funding that won’t be available until April.

“By then many workers could have been out of work for nearly a year, and the Tories still think that they will need to take out loans to get the training they will need to get back in work.

“These measures will not reverse the devastating impact of a decade of cuts, and will not give workers the skills and support they need in the months ahead.”

Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, said the measures were an “important step forward”.

“They can help solve the most urgent skills challenge facing our generation. Retraining was already a vital priority for the UK,” she said.

“The significant unemployment coronavirus is leaving in its wake only accelerates the need for people to develop new skills and adapt to new ways of working.

“The lifetime skills guarantee and flexible loans to support bitesize learning are a strong start. But to really shift gears, this must be backed up by meaningful progress on evolving the Apprenticeship Levy into a flexible skills levy.”

Nick Mackenzie, CEO of pub chain Greene King, welcomed the announcement. “As a business we are passionate about improving social mobility and developing the skills of the nation’s young people to ensure they are ready for work. That is why we invest heavily in apprenticeships, supporting over 12,500 since 2011,” he said.

Dr Fiona Aldridge, director of policy and research at the Learning and Work Institute, said: “The new lifetime skills guarantee will help more adults improve their skills, and hopefully kickstart a new era of investment after a decade of decline during which the number of adults gaining A level equivalent qualifications has almost halved.

“But while this new entitlement will help, it can only be the first piece of the jigsaw and a downpayment on the £1.9 billion extra investment needed. We need an ambitious lifelong learning strategy, support for people to retrain and change careers, and investment to create a pipeline of learning from basic skills to higher education.”

Kirstie Donnelly, CEO at City & Guilds Group, commented: “This is certainly a step in the right direction, however these measures still seem narrow in their scope and don’t contain the creative thinking needed to address vast skills and jobs challenges that lie ahead.

“In our CSR submission we detail how skills funding could be better used to help people understand their transferable skills as well as the new skills needed to get back into work. While it’s currently unclear how much this latest government intervention will cost, investing £65 million – or just under £1 per head – in a network of digitally enabled Employment and Training Hubs across the UK that provide meaningful, long-term support to stem unemployment would be much better value for money. We can’t wait until April for these interventions – this is our act now moment.”

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