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Skills development is not just about transition into work: we need innovative thinking about higher level skills too

  • 23 February 2021
  • By Paul Layzell & James Bennett

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Paul Layzell, Principal of Royal Holloway, University of London and James Bennett, Director of StoryFutures Academy. You can find Paul on Twitter @RHULPrincipal and James @james_a_bennett.

The UK has a skills challenge. On this, business leaders, politicians, educators and commentators can all agree. Whether the driver is economic prosperity in a post-Brexit or post-pandemic world, the current levelling-up agenda or the productivity deficit, there are critical areas of skill shortage – not least in health sciences, product design and engineering, tackling climate change or embracing disruptive technologies.

Tackling this challenge quickly focuses on the 16 to 21 year-old population, highlighting the need for apprenticeships and more flexible further and higher education. These are important policies which we need to grow and accelerate our economy, but they focus on a single point of transition – from secondary education to the workplace.

If the UK is to maintain its place as a leader in a globally connected world driven by advanced technology, we also need to pay attention to higher level skills that are part of a continuous and evolutionary cycle of development throughout our working lives.

Higher level skills are less about proficiency in a single discipline or a set of techniques and more about blending skills and knowledge across technologies and sectors. In the UK’s research universities, it is often said that successful interdisciplinary working (to address societal challenges) needs strong underlying disciplinary strength. In the same way, higher level skill development needs a strong underlying skills base on which to build, making mature learners and employees an obvious target.

The challenge of developing higher level skills is often referred to by successive governments as ‘lifelong learning’, but there appears to be a woeful shortage of ideas for delivery beyond simple re-skilling and applying basic level skills training to an older population.

There is, however, an emerging model, developed through university research, that has the potential to deliver higher level skills by employing advanced technologies to help experienced workers develop competitive advantage. The new techniques acquired, in turn, inform and stimulate new generations of business, creating a virtuous training and development cycle.

An example of the need for higher level skills can be seen in the creative industries, where emerging technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and immersive platforms like Virtual and Augmented Reality, have an important role to play in a sector which is keen to adapt and respond to today’s challenges. These technologies offer the possibilities of automating parts of production and reaching audiences in new and more intimate ways – often providing a much-needed respite from the tyranny of dislocation imposed by social distancing.

Realising the potential of these new technologies requires rapid upskilling of the workforce. Despite their world-leading reputation, the UK’s creative industries have historically under-invested in training, with employers less likely than other sectors to offer staff training – no surprise in a sector typically comprising small-to-medium sized enterprises and a largely freelance workforce. As a result, 65% of creative industries employers feel that a lack of skills is a significant barrier to business growth.

Closing the skills gap is also about harnessing existing industry expertise and enhancing the application of new technologies.

Gaps like these show that addressing the UK’s higher-level skills deficit is about much more than re-skilling industrial workers for new service roles or opening new career paths for those denied higher education at earlier points in their lives. Closing the skills gap is also about harnessing existing industry expertise and enhancing the application of new technologies. And there are partnership models that can do this.

Funded as part of the Government’s Industrial Strategy ‘Audiences of the Future’ Challenge, StoryFutures Academy develops and delivers cutting-edge creative training and research programmes to ensure the UK creative workforce is the most skilled in the world in the use of Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality. The Academy is the National Centre for Immersive Storytelling – based at Royal Holloway, University of London and the National Film and Television School – operates with pump-priming funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

In its first two years of operation the National Centre has reached nearly 1,000 beneficiaries, including such luminaries as Oscar Winner Asif Kapadia and over 200 companies from across film, television, theatre and digital. With hundreds of applicants for each course run, there is huge appetite amongst the industry’s workforce for higher skills development.

And it works: StoryFutures Academy’s training has already created over 150 jobs and secured industry investment in its upskilling programme to tackle digital disruption of over £1.5 million. While industry professionals can benefit from practical support through short courses and hands-on learning, companies in the emerging immersive and AI markets can, too, benefit from the years of experience accrued by the creative industries professionals. The result is both rapid upskilling and innovation that drives economic growth.

But the scheme also does much more: professionals benefiting from training in turn provide ‘time back’ to teach future cohorts of learners. This approach has built a deep reservoir of training time from current industry professionals that will be used on traditional undergraduate and postgraduate courses across the country, enhancing the value of a degree and creating stronger routes into employment. This virtuous circle then enables companies to play a key role in nurturing new talent who can be right at the cutting edge of skills needed by employers.

With the ramifications of the pandemic and Brexit yet to come, retaining and growing our competitive edge needs fresh thinking. The StoryFutures Academy model is just one way we can extend and replicate the development of higher-level skills across the UK’s most valuable sectors and one which the Government needs to support and encourage.

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