The prime minister will today set out plans for a Lifetime Skills Guarantee to support the post-pandemic development of lifelong learning.
The government will launch a National Skills Fund (NSF) in England from April next year. The NSF will offer adults without an A-level or equivalent qualification a “free, fully funded college course”.
The NSF will also enable more learners to access flexible higher education loans, which the government hopes will encourage lifelong learning. The plans will “make it easy” for learners to take breaks from their studies, transfer credits between HE and FE providers and study part-time or over a period of years.
Further details of these arrangements are to be revealed in a further education white paper, due to be published later this year.
Mr Johnson is expected to say later today: “As the chancellor has said, we cannot, alas, save every job. What we can do is give people the skills to find and create new and better jobs.
“So, my message today is that at every stage of your life, this government will help you get the skills you need.
“We’re transforming the foundations of the skills system so that everyone has the chance to train and retrain.”
The government will also expand its “digital skills boot camp” pilots in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands with an £8m cash injection, creating new hubs in four new locations.
Mr Johnson will also restate the government’s intention to invest in college facilities, including over £1.5bn in capital funding.
The government hopes to reverse the decline in the numbers undertaking Higher National Certificates (HNCs) and Diplomas (HNDs); in 2000, over 100,000 people were studying for an HNC or HND, but numbers since then have slipped to fewer than 35,000. The numbers beginning foundation degrees has also dropped from 81,000 to 30,000.
The government’s ambition is to boost the numbers of adults in England that have a Higher Technical Qualification (HTQ) as their highest qualification from the present 10% to a figure more comparable with that in Germany or Canada, where respectively 20% and 34% hold an HTQ as their highest qualification.
University Alliance chief executive Vanessa Wilson welcomed today’s announcement.
“As leaders in delivering professional and technical education and collaborating with businesses of all sizes, we have long argued for many of today’s announcements, including flexible loans and modular credits, doing more to support SMEs to take on apprentices, and scrapping restrictions that prevent adults from re-entering higher education,” Ms Wilson said.
She added: “We hope the focus will be on harnessing the whole post-16 system to achieve the potential of these announcements to tackle unemployment, support individuals and employers, and promote lifelong learning.
“As we know from our strong partnerships with further education colleges, both higher education and further education institutions have a vital role to play in the up-skilling and re-skilling efforts needed to help the UK weather the challenging economic period ahead and create the highly skilled workforce we need for the long-term.”
Dr Greg Walker, chief executive of MillionPlus, said: “As pioneers of professional, vocational and technical education at HE level, often crafted with input from employers to bring together classroom learning and workplace practice, modern universities stand ready to expand further this vital provision in every part of the country.
“Degree apprenticeships should be at the heart of these reforms. Combining an apprenticeship with a degree is a good way of making learning portable, as the PM wishes our skills system to be.
“Such portability will also be aided by introducing greater flexibility to the student loan system, something MillionPlus has long called for. The government should ensure that its reforms enable individuals to access financial support for standalone level 4 and 5 courses at university as well as FE colleges. This support should also be available to part-time students.”
Commenting on the prime minister’s speech, Professor Julia Buckingham, the president of Universities UK (UUK) and vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, said: “We have long campaigned for changes to student funding to better support flexible, part-time and adult learning. Today’s announcement is an initial step in the right direction. There is a strong economic imperative to improve flexible learning, and we are pleased that the government has recognised the role that universities can play in addressing skills shortages and upskilling existing employees.
“There has been a marked decline in adult learning in recent years, and as the nation looks to recover and rebuild from the impact of Covid-19, now more than ever we need fresh thinking and policy change to help people of all ages and backgrounds to reskill and retrain.
“Many universities are ready to scale up alternatives to the traditional three-year degree, and give more people chances to study elements of a course in a ‘bitesize’ learning model. This would allow people to develop skills in areas such as digital, entrepreneurship, business and public sector management, which will all be likely to benefit the UK’s recovery and boost local economies. It would also help those out of work in certain sectors – such as construction, engineering, and aviation – which have been hit hard by the pandemic.”