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Home > News > November 2003 > 27-Nov-2003

Futures study reveals visions of the future of education and training

A new report from the Learning and Skills Research Centre (LSRC) presents visions of what the post-16 education and training system in England and Wales might look like in 20 years time.

Learning from the future (published this month) takes a long-term view of further education and training in England and Wales. It has been produced by The Tomorrow Project, an independent programme of research, consultation and communication about people's lives in the next 20 years. The report is based around consultations with experts from 48 different organisations, including government departments and agencies, voluntary and professional organisations, educational bodies and businesses.

Four questions were posed: Where are we now? What will influence the future? What are the possible outcomes (scenarios)? So what?

Starting with Where are we now? the report highlights recent measures to improve the quality and extent of vocational education in England concentrating on four areas: skills - equipping workers for the knowledge economy, but possibly at the expense of more traditional skills; widening participation - how to increase the number of people engaged in learning, raising standards; and tackling social exclusion.

The most pressing future challenges (What will influence the future?) are seen as:

  • Responding to the evolution of the global economy, with more demanding consumers (including consumers of education), more fluid work patterns and possibly older workers
  • Delivering skills that will support higher value-added activities - not just ‘knowledge' skills but also ‘old economy' skills (e.g. traditional crafts), interpersonal and life skills
  • Finding the right balance between supporting academic and vocational learning - between the growing role in feeding higher education and the expansion of lifelong specialist learning
  • Securing closer integration between different parts of the learning and skills sector - between schools, colleges, training providers, universities and employers
  • Embracing new methods of teaching and learning
  • Promoting social inclusion - helping to shift the substantial number of people in low-productivity, low-paid jobs (or without jobs at all) into higher value-added employment

Four future scenarios are presented, describing how further education and training might develop over the next 10-20 years. Each scenario is built around two forms of government intervention - labour market regulation and increased public investment - and structured around four themes. These are: skills - increasing the supply through more employer-based training, or raising employer demand for higher skills; priorities - getting the right balance between equipping students for higher education and providing non-university vocational training; integration - particularly between further and higher education; and participation - the extent to which each scenario increases and widens participation.

Scenario 1: Steady as she goes

In this scenario government sees through recent structural reforms of the learning and skills sector and takes the view that market forces should be allowed to drive further developments. There is minimal government regulation and little or no increase in public investment, largely driven by fears that more regulation could deter investment. Improving skills is set in the context of other measures to boost productivity and investment. Essentially, this scenario adopts the free market approach with ‘more of the same'. Main features:

  • Government continues to rely on employers to provide short-term vocational training as they need it
  • Longer-term academic and vocational education is provided by sixth forms, FE sector colleges and HE institutions, sometimes in partnership with employers
  • Degree-level education continues to expand with students paying a growing proportion of the costs, mostly through repayable loans. School sixth forms and FE colleges focus more heavily on equipping people for higher education
  • Slow bridging of the FE/HE divide. Movement towards credit accumulation and transfer progresses, but very slowly
  • Further expansion of apprenticeships for school-leavers
  • Expanding participation to the least qualified remains a challenge

Scenario 2: Change tack

This scenario is driven by concerns about skills shortages in the ‘old economy'. The shrinkage of tax revenues means that the economy cannot support the level of government spending that the public demands. Many employers will not invest in training because they lack workers skilled enough to make efficient use of their investment. The assumption is that a large pool of better qualified labour would attract inward investment.

  • Steady as she goes is inadequate. Market forces alone are too weak to boost skills
  • Stronger focus on regulation, but little increase in public investment
  • Huge expansion of apprenticeships for school-leavers, through government regulation
  • Assumes that government intervention to raise skills is more likely to be effective than measures to raise business productivity

Scenario 3: Change course

This scenario is driven by concerns that the ‘underbelly' of the UK economy is failing. The message is that boosting skills without a corresponding increase in the demand for skills wastes resources and will not alone bring about increased productivity.

  • U-turn away from improving skills supply to a concentration on boosting the demand for skills. The focus is on stimulating innovation and raising productivity
  • Further but piecemeal government intervention on the labour supply side, but no big expansion of apprenticeships
  • Higher government investment - more subsidies, channelled through Regional Development Agencies
  • Regional imbalances to be corrected. Skills shortages, plus pressures on housing and transport in the south-east put intolerable pressures on this region. This may involve more immigration. Stronger regional economies are needed to ease the strain, through an employer-led strategy

Scenario 4: All aboard

This scenario is the most radical and least likely, but alarms about the state of the economy may bring it closer to reality. A focus is on the need to boost home-grown skills. All aboard might have a stronger appeal if the UK joined the euro and drew closer to the rest of Europe, reducing the influence of the US free market model.

  • High levels of public investment (as in Change course)
  • High degree of government regulation
  • Sharp increase in the minimum wage. This will be offset by cuts in employers' National Insurance contributions.

The report poses a number of policy questions addressed in each of the four scenarios. Each one relates to the four themes: skills, priorities, integration and participation. For instance: What sort of skills will we need in the future? And should more attention be devoted to the demand for skills rather than the supply? (Skills) Would further expansion of higher education provide too many over-skilled graduates, or will the concentration on expanding foundation degrees increase the supply of skills at a level that the economy demands? (Priorities). Can we leave it to the market to bring greater integration to post-16 learning? If not what policy levers should government pull to promote further integration? (Integration). In what ways can learning be made more attractive to those with negative experiences of school? (Participation)

Mick Fletcher, Research Manager at the Learning and Skills Development Agency, says: "The learning and skills sector will face immense challenges over the next 20 years. Central to the debate is the need to boost skills and compete in the global economy. A key issue is whether to expand the supply or the demand for skills. What Learning from the future does it to create different scenarios of how it could develop and the policy questions that need to be addressed."

Michael Moynagh, Co-Director of the Tomorrow Project and one of the authors of Learning from the future, said: "Boosting the skills of the low paid won't do much good on its own, especially if the extra skills aren't needed. The big challenge is to train employers in high skilled, high value production rather than starting with employees."

Learning from the future: scenarios for post-16 learning, published by the Learning and Skills Research Centre, is available from is available from: Information Services, LSDA, Regent Arcade House, 19-25 Argyll Street, London W1F 7LS. Tel: 0207 297 9123. Email:

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