This guest blog has been contributed by John Wrathmell and Simon Hughes of the Open University.

Choice is at the heart of the Government’s vision for higher education. Jo Johnson MP, as the Minister responsible, could not have been clearer at the Second Reading debate on the Higher Education and Research Bill in the House of Commons on 19 July 2016: ‘I make no apology for seeking to expand higher education provision and give students more choice and more opportunities at every stage of their lives.’

Expanding the choice of high-quality options for adult students – and their employers – is essential if we are to raise UK skill levels. With opportunities when they need them throughout their lives, people can regularly develop their careers and businesses can regularly adapt to new challenges.

This need to raise skills is a thread running through many of the debates about the UK’s future – and was a core theme of last month’s HEPI’s Lecture by Martha Kanter. Fierce debates about Brexit and immigration often centre on whether we can meet the skills needs of our businesses through our own education system. There is now a widespread realisation that the lack of clear, prestigious and high-quality pathways for vocational students is hobbling UK productivity. Advances in robotics and the development of the ‘gig economy’ are prompting very different visions for the future of the workplace – but one thing we can be sure of is that people will need to upgrade and change their skills in order to keep up, especially given that longer life expectancy is likely to mean more years of working life.

The Government’s developing responses make clear the prominent place of skills. For example, funding for adult skills is a core part of the growing number of English devolution deals that are intended to give English cities and regions the tools to meet the needs of local employers much better. The emerging Industrial Strategy will also see skills playing a core role in raising productivity and – ultimately – the living standards of those people currently just about managing.

So how do we make sure that adults can have a full range of choices and maximise the chances to increase their skills? The Higher Education and Research Bill puts some of the building blocks in place, but the most powerful driver will be money. How can we give adults more control over personal investments they make, with more choice for them and their employers over how, where and what they study and learn?

As policy-makers wrestle with these questions, interest is growing in proposals to give all adults Personal Learning Accounts (under one name or another). Such accounts could give all adults wishing to study or train a single pot of funding and much more choice and flexibility over how financial support for fees and maintenance costs is used. All adults could have access to a wider range of courses and training, and the opportunity to study full or part-time, whenever in their career they need it.

Increasing numbers of policy experts have come to the conclusion that Personal Learning Accounts are urgently needed now to deliver more choice and higher standards, and meet our national needs. Professor Alison Wolf has argued for a single lifetime tertiary education entitlement. The Learning and Work Institute has developed proposals for a Personal Learning Account, which include both a skills passport covering previous learning and a Help to Learn Bonus to encourage people to contribute to an account. These proposals have built on thinking by Bright Blue and Policy Exchange and University Alliance and the Workers’ Educational Association have been arguing along similar lines.

On 12 January, The Open University and the Association of Colleges are bringing together leading thinkers and international contributors to discuss Personal Learning Accounts and seek maximum consensus on the way forward.

To drive choice and excellence most effectively, several key questions about Personal Learning Accounts must be answered:

  1. What types of courses and levels of learning should they cover?
  2. Should they cover both fees and maintenance?
  3. Who could and should contribute to them?
  4. How can the problems which affected the Individual Learning Accounts be avoided?

As the answers to these questions are resolved, the aim is to develop a Personal Learning Account proposal with a broad measure of support across English further and higher education which could be introduced as part of the Industrial Strategy soon. We believe this could quickly help the Government move towards its goal of a much better skilled workforce, and enable the UK to compete much more successfully in our new world after the EU referendum.

Personal Learning Accounts alone will not be enough for the full benefits of adult study and training choices to be realised. Adults of all ages wishing to upskill or reskill also need high quality qualifications to choose from and the right information to make good choices. But we urgently need a finance and funding system for learning and training which gives everyone the chance to make the best choices and supports our present and future workforce. Without this we will not succeed in meeting our personal and collective skill needs in the future.