November 23, 2021

Can online education help plug the global skills gap?

Employment rates have been hitting the headlines recently, as businesses everywhere struggle to recruit staff in a number of key areas.


But while many news stories have focused on the shortage of workers in supply-chain roles – such as haulage, food processing and hospitality – the long-term implications of constraints in other in-demand fields, like computer science and healthcare, are potentially even more serious.


Widespread skills gaps


The statistics are stark. One recent study reported that the total number of applications per job vacancy in the UK almost halved between Q3 2020 and Q3 2021, while vacancies doubled during the same period. Worryingly, this yawning disparity between the number of vacant positions and the number of applicants continues to increase, month on month.


The skills gap is particularly acute in the tech sector. Recent research by EdTech company Skillsoft revealed unfilled positions in tech departments were at critical levels, with more than a third of IT leaders not only struggling to hire but also believing that current skills development programmes were rapidly and consistently being ‘outpaced’ by the speed of change.


These findings were echoed by a report from techUK, showing a ‘significant discrepancy’ between the demand for skilled workers in tech industries and opportunities to retrain in these fields. With an additional three million new jobs requiring digital skills predicted by the middle of this decade, it’s an imbalance that’s only likely to become more urgent.


Exploring a complex training landscape


Addressing the skills gap is a mammoth task. In a 2020 CBI and McKinsey report, researchers predicted that nine out of ten UK workers would need to reskill or upskill by 2030. The study summarised six core sectors that – based on a ‘skills mismatch’ analysis – would potentially require the greatest focus: digital skills; leadership and management; communication; teaching and training; STEM; and critical thinking.


It’s a problem that’s already on the government’s radar. In September 2020, plans were outlined for a so-called ‘lifetime skills guarantee’ which would offer access to free courses, as well as a flexible loan system to support ‘bitesize’ learning for adults without a Level-3 qualification. However, although the scheme will support first-time Level-3 students, those holding existing qualifications but who need to reskill in order to get back to employment, for example, will still face financial barriers to accessing the learning they need.


Older students are often overlooked when it comes to HE provision; almost all public funding of education in England is invested in the under-25s, with only around 2 percent going to adult learners, according to a 2019 report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.


And, while the 2020 CBI report highlighted under-investment in workplace training as one of the major issues facing government and businesses in the drive to provide more learning opportunities (annual training spend per employee has flatlined in the last decade), it also acknowledged that continuing to prioritise longer, qualifications-based courses for young people was limiting overall progress.


This position was underscored by another recent report into adult skills training provision in the UK. The study, conducted by the Workplace Training and Development Commission (WTDC), called for a radical system reboot with ‘renewed focus on digital skills and innovation’ via a more agile, modular approach that would better serve both students and employers in the coming months and years.


In fact, it’s likely that modular, online learning will be key to unlocking the barriers to reskilling because it:

  • Optimises skill development for people who are in-work
  • Supports self-paced asynchronous learning
  • Breaks topics and concepts into more digestible components
  • Promotes achievable goals, leading to greater completion and engagement rates
  • Delivers faster skills transfer over shorter periods


Universities can deliver a different kind of experience


Although in recent years more universities had begun to experiment with online and hybrid teaching and learning programmes, the pandemic accelerated the evolution of alternative delivery models, driving the kind of complex education transformation that usually takes decades to execute.


What started as a schedule of hastily improvised measures designed solely to facilitate temporary distance learning for campus-based students, ended up delivering genuine benefits for educators and learners alike:

  • Improved time and resource efficiencies
  • Consistent delivery of lessons, regardless of location
  • Potential for a more personalised learning experience
  • Provision of assistance and support closely matched to individual student need
  • Opportunity for students to participate and collaborate in a more accessible and inclusive way


Even when the influence of Covid-19 on educational provision has diminished, it’s likely that universities will want to retain these advantages by continuing to deploy a more flexible approach to study, especially as they navigate globally diversifying learner markets. Any such strategic shift will require an honest, no-holds-barred review of existing infrastructure.


Do current systems offer sufficient learner-centric opportunities to those accessing their education in non-standard ways? Can institutions effectively leverage existing resources to create platforms that invite, support and reward engagement?


Kickstarting change through partnership


As the higher education sector re-evaluates its relationship with technology as it grapples with the need to simultaneously reduce inequities and drive efficiencies, the entire ecosystem is overdue a reboot.


With ‘lifelong learning’ experiences increasingly happening online and among older age groups, universities need to carefully consider what will undoubtedly become crucial investments in digital infrastructure, education partnerships and hybrid learning spaces. Against this backdrop, the case for collaborating with EdTech providers that can help institutions expand access to learning – engaging students more fully, raising attainment and enhancing outcomes, while optimising the use of resources – is compelling.


Little wonder that projections by market intelligence organisation HolonIQ predict global spending on EdTech to reach $400 billion (£292 billion) by 2025 – double current investment levels.


There’s no quick fix to remedy the skills gap but any long-term solution will require a radical re-evaluation of the role of higher education. Thanks to the pandemic, we now know that educational institutions and policymakers can respond swiftly when they need to. A different kind of crisis is already upon us, demanding a similarly innovative response, and revealing its own opportunities and challenges.


The roadmap is still forming. We are tasked with creating a framework for enlightened education, without knowing what the future holds – or what it will demand of us. We do know that this era of digital transformation will require significant change; not slow, steady, and iterative development, but profound disruption on a previously unimagined level as we redraw processes and re-define purpose.


In the broader context of this transformation, faculties will themselves need to upskill and reskill to support a reimagined curriculum that prioritises student recruitment and retention from non-traditional candidate pools.


As governments begin to invest more significantly in skills development, we’d expect to see the emergence of a flexible partnerships model between the universities tasked with building skills, the businesses that need a highly skilled workforce to underpin productivity and growth, and third-party organisations with the expertise to develop and deliver effective online and hybrid learning programmes to motivated students everywhere. It’s a powerful vision.


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