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Oxford research supports policy makers and businesses in developing skills in the workforce, but government cuts means that the future for English further education is far from clear.

An uncertain future

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The SKOPE (Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance) research centre at the University’s Department of Education has been providing world class research since 1998.  Working in collaboration with the Universities of Warwick and Cardiff, the multidisciplinary model has influenced government policy on skills and training.  But this landscape is shifting at dramatic speed, and the future is hard to predict.  One thing is certain:  spending cuts will continue to reduce the sector’s ability to support further education and training.

It’s widely accepted, and often hoped, that improving the skill set of the UK workforce will automatically increase production and benefit the economy.  Not so, suggests SKOPE research.  A change in the skill level of the workforce needs to be reflected by a change in production and organisational strategies:  employees need to be able to use their skills. It is hard to develop cohesive strategies for our fractured business sector, but SKOPE have consistently provided evidence-based recommendations for government departments and business sector bodies. There is a long list of government departments that SKOPE has influenced or advised, ranging from the Cabinet Office and the Treasury to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.  Organisations such as the British Army, the National Apprenticeship Service, OECD and the World Skills Foundation have also benefitted from SKOPE’s insights. In the UK, SKOPE created a network of high-level stakeholders who were involved in workplace innovation and promoting further education and training.  

Researchers have called for policies to be more closely aligned with those in Europe, where there is a greater emphasis on workplace or employee-driven innovation, but refocusing policies like this needs longer-term governmental support and deeper pockets than the UK’s political and economy system can currently offer.  In England, the future looks bleak for further education institutions, with cuts amounting to 35% since 2010 and a further 25% budget cut announced in early 2015.  Further contractions are expected.  There appears to be no policy road map to navigate the impact of these cuts, as young people with limited qualifications and skills are left unsupported and adult upskilling and retraining opportunities vanish.

In comparison, the devolved Scottish parliament has put more weight behind calls to reform the educations skills and training sector, and its links with economic policy.  Advised by SKOPE, their plans take into account the need to integrate skills utilisation into its workforce policy and to support youth transition into the labour market.  Recently, as part of a new wave of development to build up the capacity of the Scottish research sector, the Chief Executive of Skills Development for Scotland has announced 12 new PhD students, dedicated to studying Scottish education, training and skills in terms of provision and outcome.

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