Blog

Written by Professor Dame Athene Donald

Decrease the skills gap to increase R&D

Athene Donald addresses the skills gap in the UK and the need to develop better technicians, engineers and other skilled workers to support industry and our economy.

Wisbech port

Image: Wisbech port, Wikipedia


All the main parties, in their recent manifestos, proposed a significant increase in spending on R&D as a percentage of GDP (2.4% in the Tories’ version) as part of their goal for kick-starting the economy and pulling the UK out of its current productivity stagnation. If we are travelling ‘The Road to 2.4%’, the phrase David Willetts uses in the context of this goal, then we need to pay considerably more attention to skills. Do we have sufficient absorptive capacity to translate investment into productivity improvements and so finally to shift our struggling economy? Will the private sector invest? Let’s not forget, if businesses don’t have the skilled workforce to make good use of any uplift in investment, then they may realistically be reluctant to spend, knowing their return may never manage to pay for itself.

The evidence is clear that, in basic science, the UK punches above its weight. The skills I’m referring to here are not those of the elite scientists who garner their high level of citations in academia or file patents in their companies, but the underpinning workforce – the technicians, for instance – who make that work possible. The myriad variety of engineers we need to plug our infrastructure gaps, the IT-literate workers who ensure the supply chains work and just-in-time manufacturing means what it says. Many of these jobs will not qualify under the Government’s new visa scheme, so the need for home-grown talent is greater than ever.

The CBI regularly highlights the lack of well-qualified workers to fill the posts already available in these areas. The Augar Review, neglected for the past months but still on the horizon, particularly highlights the lack of workers with Level 4-5 attainment in the UK, saying:

‘In England, only 4 per cent of 25 year-olds hold a Level 4 or Level 5 qualification as their highest level, compared to nearly 30 per cent for both Level 3 and Level 6. In contrast, in Germany, Level 4 and 5 makes up 20 per cent of all higher education enrolments.’

Likewise, a recent report from the Education Policy Institute spells out not only the per capita lower level of funding directed towards upper secondary technical education compared with academic qualifications, but also that UK technical courses are typically only 1-2 years long compared with 3-4 years in competitor European nations. Are we training the right people in the right way?

Levelling up across the regions is now ever-present in political discourse. Yet the distribution of educational attainment may act against this desire; it isn’t simply about money. As with everything in our society, correlations are complex, and so with educational attainment levels and with levels of deprivation, as well as ethnicity. You don’t have to go far from the thriving city of Cambridge into the Fens and towards the coast to recognize ‘left behind’ regions, with little but agriculture by way of industry. The children in these rural ideas don’t see the benefits of the overheating Cambridge economy as applying to them; their aspirations seem set low and looking around their local communities they cannot see skilled or semi-skilled jobs into which they could slot. I know, because I’ve talked to some of them. As Richard Jones has said of such areas – although he cites Dudley and Barnsley rather than the East’s Wisbech or Cromer – ‘demand for skills in such places is weak, too; why would people invest time and money acquiring more skills if there are no rewarding jobs to use them in? These places are locked in a low-skills equilibrium, where the lack of productive businesses leads to weak demand for skilled people, resulting in low supply.’ To break this cycle that he identifies – be it in Barnsley, Wisbech or anywhere else that has reached this low-skills equilibrium ­ –  the skills must both be locally needed and also seen as relevant to the people in these areas.

In large part, these skills are not going to be at Level 6; such areas are not likely to be looking for research scientists, but for the IT-literate sales staff and the hands-on technicians. The MillionPlus university group recently wrote a report highlighting the roles of their members in the levelling up agenda through Level 6 qualifications, but I would disagree with their premise.  This cannot only be about degrees and Level 6 qualifications. As with the Augar Report, we need to be looking more closely at the funding of Further Education Colleges and the myriad similar organisations (a confusing landscape in itself), to ensure that skills at Levels 2-5 are appropriately funded. To do this requires that those seeking to upskill later in life, as well as those under 18, are properly funded for the courses that will benefit both them personally and the wider economy. Currently, direct financial support for such students is ungenerous and confusing for them and their employers/ institutions. The Augar Review makes for damning reading in this space – and one doesn’t have to agree with their recommendations about university funding to recognize that their criticisms of the technical route are well-made and need resolving.

A final plea: diversity. We, as a nation, are mired in out-of-date stereotypes. Work experience in schools has been shown to follow this norm: send the girls off to the hairdressers and the boys to the local garage for their week(s) of hands-on experience. That is not going to broaden viewpoints and aspirations. As an example, the statistics of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, near Rotherham, and a major trainer of apprentices across the local manufacturing sector, make depressing reading. Only around 7% of those who enrol on their courses are young women and I’m told by them most comparable training organisations have similar problems recruiting women. We are never going to resolve the skills shortages, or indeed transform regional economies, when nearly half the population don’t even line up at the starting blocks or recognize what the opportunities are for them.

  • About the author

    Professor Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College

    Professor Dame Athene Donald is a Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College. Her research is in the general field of soft matter and physics at the interface of biology; she has published over 250 papers in these fields. In recent years she ...   Learn more

    Professor Dame Athene Donald