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Queen’s Speech 2021: The UK government zeroes in on skills

Skills are top of the agenda.

Allie Nawrat

government skills
Credit: Mahmoud Yahia Hasan via Twenty20.

Unleash Your PeopleUpskilling and reskilling are central to the UK government’s plan for the country’s post-COVID recovery.

  • Today, the Queen officially opened the UK’s parliament for a new session.
  • In doing so, she read out a speech written by ministers that laid out the UK government’s plan to help the country recover from COVID-19.
  • What do HR leaders think about the UK government’s latest commitment to skills?

This morning, the UK’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, traveled to Westminster to open parliament for the next legislative session. This ceremonial act is accompanied by lots of rituals and customs – most notably, that the Queen – and every monarch since Charles I – is not allowed to enter the primary legislative chamber, the House of Commons.

The main element of the official state opening of parliament is the Queen’s Speech. Sitting on a throne in the House of Lords, the Queen reads out a speech, which is written by ministers and lays out the government’s agenda and program for next year or so.

Unsurprisingly, this year the Queen began by talking about the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and how the UK will recover as a “stronger, healthier and more prosperous” nation.

Queen Elizabeth II then went on to discuss the UK government’s commitment to level up opportunities by supporting jobs, businesses, and economic growth.

One part of this is introducing legislation for the lifetime skills guarantee, which will “enable flexible access to high quality and training throughout people’s lives”.

Deep dive into GOvernment’s lifetime skills guarantee

The UK government’s lifetime skills guarantee has been floating around the legislative agenda since the end of 2020.

The scheme, which will be backed by £95m in government funding over the next year, is expected to give 11 million adults who do not have A-level or equivalent qualifications access to a free qualification. The qualification itself has been “designed to help them to gain in-demand skills and secure great jobs”.

UK Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson commented: “The launch of these free qualifications for adults is a pivotal moment in the delivery of our lifetime skills guarantee, which will make sure everyone can train, retrain or upskill throughout their lives.

“This offer will help give millions of adults the chance to gain the skills they need to secure rewarding careers in key sectors of the economy including construction, healthcare and digital.

“With almost 400 to choose from, there is something there for everyone.”

The lifetime skills guarantee — the core of the government’s Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which will be introduced in Parliament on 18 May — will also provide some adults access to a new Skills Bootcamps that offer free courses lasting 16 weeks, as well as a fast-track interview with a local employer at the end. This is in addition to the government’s new Skills Accelerator program, which aims to put local employers front and center of training opportunities in order to fill skills gaps.

The current UK government is also planning to rehaul the way student finance is structured. Under the so-called lifelong loan entitlement, which was set out in 2020, individuals will have access to the equivalent of four years of student loan that they can use at any point in their lifetime for any qualifications, whether they are technical or academic.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson commented that the government plans to use this Bill as the “rocket fuel that we need to level up this country and ensure equal opportunities for all.

“I’m revolutionizing the system so we can move past the outdated notion that there is only one route up the career ladder, and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to retrain or upskill at any point in their lives.

HR experts welcome the move

Agata Nowakowska, Europe, Middle East, and Africa area vice-president of Skillsoft, noted: “Over the past year, coronavirus has shaken the economy from causing redundancies to disrupting careers across many sectors.

“For many, investment in skills support will be key to addressing both the disruption in the UK labour market, as well as the growing digital skills gap.

“With digital transformation encroaching on all industries, the announcement today promising a skills ‘revolution’ for England, with loans for adults wanting to retrain and more powers to deal with failing colleges, is very much welcomed.

“This is a vital step in growing the skills of tomorrow as well as supporting the UK economy to build back up after a year of turmoil.”

Chartered Management Institute chief executive Ann Francke said: “We’re delighted to see the Queen’s Speech focus on skills — it’s the right priority in a
post-Brexit, post-pandemic UK.

“And a greater level of employer engagement will help ensure we develop the skills that businesses actually need — creating more opportunities for those seeking employment and building a stronger, more resilient economy.

“The government must waste no time in implementing these reforms. And the Prime Minister will have to personally drive this process at pace to ensure support for lifelong learning is achieved in this Parliament, not after the next election.

“If training and vocational education finally get the attention and focus they deserve, there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enhance the management and
leadership skills base of our towns and cities as we work to build back better.”

Confederation of British Industry chief UK policy director Matthew Fell added: “Business shares the government’s ambition to turbocharge the UK’s recovery post-pandemic and reset the economy.

“The Queen’s Speech provides the building blocks for a decade of transformation and inclusive economic growth.

“The strong focus on skills will support high quality, local jobs. The emphasis on rail, bus and digital will better connect local economies.

“And a fresh approach to innovation will unlock big, bold ideas and new sources of growth around the country.

Does it go far enough?

However, not everyone is so optimistic about this skills-based focus, with many groups saying it does not go far enough to support both staff and employers.

Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes stated: “This is the first Queen’s Speech since the pandemic began so I am delighted that further education is right at the heart of it because colleges are rooted in their communities and will be central in supporting people and places to recover.

“Everybody agrees that people should have access to training and reskilling throughout their lives – the shifting of the economy, post-pandemic, is highlighting yet again, just why it is so important for people to be able to access training to move into new jobs and new sectors. 

While the lifetime skills guarantee has the potential to open up these opportunities, it will only work if people can afford to live whilst studying, through a mixture of loans, grants and welfare support. Without this, many simply won’t be able to afford it.”

Trade Unions Congress general secretary Frances O’Grady agreed, stating: “Upskilling and retraining is vital to productivity. But we won’t level up this country by saddling workers with lifelong debt.

“The government must invest now for the future, and work with unions on a new skills system. Today’s plan falls well short.  

“Many won’t be able to access the lifetime skills guarantee because they already have a level 3 qualification.”

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development head of public policy Ben Willmott concluded: “We welcome the ambition to put employers at the heart of the skills system and ensure local skills provision meets local business needs.

“However, without a fundamental rethink of the Apprenticeship Levy, plans to boost employer engagement with local education and training providers are likely to be fatally undermined. 

“A more flexible training levy would enable employers to invest in other forms of accredited training and development, and would maximise opportunities for employers to work with their local further education colleges and universities.  

“Instead, employers are currently losing £1bn a year on levy funds they can’t spend because the scheme is too inflexible. This money should be going towards other forms of adult skills investment and training and could supplement the new flexible loans for adult learners.” 

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