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Lifelong learning is the answer for addressing UK skills gaps

A government plan to fix the foundations of the British economy and boost productivity has failed to acknowledge the benefits of lifelong learning.

The Government’s ‘productivity plan’ was published last year, focusing on how to increase UK productivity and growth over the next decade and create a more prosperous nation. But a new report examining the plan concludes it’s ‘far too weak’ and is simply a collection of existing policies in one place, rather than anything ambitious or new.

The OU’s Vice-Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, gave oral evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee’s inquiry into the productivity plan last year. He was asked if the plan addressed the main causes of low productivity in the UK and effective solutions. The inquiry findings were published today.

Gaining new skills isn’t just for the young
Behind the headlines the report misses an important opportunity to acknowledge the value and contribution of lifelong learning to the UK economy, and focuses on enhancing skills for the young.

While school leavers will bolster UK productivity in the future, the need is immediate. The majority of Open University students are not straight out of school but already in work and wanting to upskill or change careers – they can contribute to strengthening the economy as soon as their study begins.

In a blog post for the University Alliance this week, Peter Horrocks says:

 … if the Government is serious about developing a highly skilled and productive workforce in the short to medium term, they are unlikely to find the answer solely in the current batch of school leavers. Or the one after that. Or indeed any cohort of typical 18-year-old students over the next five years. The best chance of achieving this ambition therefore lies in those institutions with students of all ages. These also tend to be the same institutions who are able to widen opportunities to those who may have missed out in the past.

The majority of people considering higher education are working adults. Only 13 per cent of 9.5 million people in the UK considering higher education in the next five years are school-leavers (Open University UK Market Survey, 2013.)

Learning while earning
A more positive theme of the report is its focus on apprenticeships and making sure that the new Levy scheme to fund them delivers what employers want. Practice-based learning is a core element of Open University study and students are able to demonstrate their skills and knowledge in the workplace, while they are studying.

Seventy five per cent of OU students are working full or part-time whilst studying and 72 per cent say “studying with the OU has directly increased my ability to do my job”.

The OU’s written submission to the inquiry stated that measures to stimulate more ‘throughout-working-life learning’ are crucial, particularly the flexibility offered by part-time, online distance learning at intensities and pace low enough to fit around full-time and part-time work. The availability of part-time, flexible study options will also be key in the Government’s delivery of three million new apprenticeships and in maximising the impact on productivity.