Routes to Opportunity: Addressing the non-university skills gap in England

Panel discussion at the launch of the report

In this new blog from the UCL Grand Challenges, we are going to share some of the many stories of exciting impacts that have come from cross-disciplinary research at UCL. The first example was introduced to the world at the recent Showcase event. Grand Challenges co-ordinator Siobhan Morris finds out about the skills gap affecting the life chances of those who don’t go to University.

In 2017 UCL’s Grand Challenge of Justice & Equality, under the initiative of co-ordinator Rebecca Taylor and the GCJE working group, commissioned a report on access to vocational and technical education for the over- 25s in England.  The report, Routes to Opportunity: Addressing the non-university skills gap in England, was authored by Institute of Education Doctoral candidate Aly Colman. It was launched at a reception at UCL’s Institute of Education (IoE) in December 2017, with speakers including IoE Director Professor Becky Francis, Sir Vince Cable MP, leader of the Liberal Democrats, and report author Aly Colman.

The report documents that there is a growing skills gap in England, with a critical shortage of skilled trades in the existing workforce. The findings indicate that those who would benefit the most from upskilling or retraining, such as low paid workers in unskilled jobs (the so-called “missing middle”), are often unable to do so because insufficient opportunities and funding are available. Even where support and funding is available, such as advanced learner loans, many potential learners are unaware of it.

The report states that ‘vulnerable and disadvantaged groups have much to gain and much to offer from further retraining that could lead to undertaking more skilled employment. The “missing middle” too, have the potential to play a significant role in the critical skills shortages currently being faced. Explicit and widely available information about access to retraining and upskilling is therefore crucial. That these groups currently miss out on opportunities is both a squandering of human potential and a missed opportunity to address the skills gap.’

Sir Vince Cable speaking at the report’s launch at the IoE

The report also warns that the Brexit vote is discouraging EU workers in medium skilled occupations from staying in the UK or moving to the UK. Should hiring EU workers with mid-level skills become more difficult in future, this could exacerbate the problems currently faced.

The report and the launch event brought together people from a wide range of disciplines and skills areas to discuss a pressing but under-reported political issue. As the report’s author, Aly Colman, noted, “The Routes to Opportunity Report has enabled, through Grand Challenges, the opportunities to disseminate my research in really quite a big way…At the end of the launch event, a lot of people came up to me and spoke about their roles and the ways in which their particular job may interact with what I had done through the Grand Challenges report. So that was really useful and I’ve been able to develop those links and I’ve been connecting with people so that I’m able to follow this project up with connections that are really valuable and really useful.”

This was the first time that new research, commissioned by Grand Challenges, had been brought into the public policy arena and it acts an example for other work from the programme to follow.

Further information about the report is available here.

The report’s author, Aly Colman, also spoke about the report and her work at the recent Grand Challenges Showcase event: