How can digital technology help remove multifaceted systemic skills barriers for learners?

Josh Smith and Karen Tatham, Ufi Voctech Trust


20 03 2023


Tagged by:


Learning and Work Institute (L&W) and Ufi VocTech Trust (Ufi) are exploring how to use technology to help every adult in the UK get the skills they need to participate and benefit from employment. We are bringing together organisations, learners and thought leaders from across the adult education sector and beyond as part of “VocTech Challenge: Skills for an economy in transition.” We are asking the question:

How can VocTech digital tools and pedagogies help narrow inequalities and ensure every adult can participate in learning throughout their working lives so that the UK has the skills it needs for an economy in transition?

We are working at a time of rapid change in the UK economy and labour market, where we see that the UK’s needs will not be met unless there is greater and more equitable access to skills.

We know that economic growth comes from a better skilled workforce, and that must include every part of the workforce. This means ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to develop skills for work through their lives, building a future economy and labour market where people aren’t just playing catch up but have the chance to thrive in new industries and sectors.

In our Discovery Blog series, we are summarising a range of discussions and conversations that are taking place with stakeholders across the four nations of the UK. We are looking to hear about the real lived experience of learners and examine the practical challenges and solutions in adult vocational education. These blogs will then form the bedrock of our Discovery Paper, to be released in April, which will draw out all our new findings.

These blogs reflect a fraction of the conversations we are having and if any of the topics or themes explored in these blogs are of interest, please do get in touch via:


Our workshops on 1 & 2 March focused on the role of digital technology in developing a more agile, responsive skills system. In this blog, we share how systemic barriers are baking in disadvantage for groups of adult learners. Themes covered in our discussions included: quality work and skills shortages; the challenges for highly skilled workers who are not highly qualified; Level 3 as a pivot qualification for access to quality work; digital technology, micro-credentials, and non-linear learning; lived experience as a job and client skill; provider size; and using digital technology to support collaborative innovation in qualification and assessment design.

Digital technology and system within system barriers – key takeaways

Participants discussed the barriers and traps within the skills system itself.  Contributors talked of skills shortages being the result of a range of different system barriers.  This includes the well-known patterns of exclusion from qualifications and jobs from a lack of Level 2 English and Maths, as well as whether the jobs with skills shortages were high quality; the challenges for highly skilled workers who have not taken formal qualifications; barriers to accessing level 3, and the traps of the Universal Credit system for workers who want to reskill or upskill. Learners may be in multiple jobs, have caring or childcare responsibilities, and can’t afford to step out of work, or fund care to access the qualification.

There are large numbers of middle aged and older workers who are in highly skilled roles, but who do not hold formal qualifications. These can be workers who left school with few qualifications but who have extensive work experience in skilled jobs. In addition, migrant workers may be qualified in their home country, but lack paper qualifications, or their qualifications are not recognised in the four nations of the UK. Contributors described level 3 qualifications as the entry point for workers to access and progress in quality work.  However, there is limited recognition of the barrier of the time it takes to achieve a level 3 qualification. Financial barriers exist from very little maintenance support below level 4, creating challenges for adult learners who may be working multiple jobs and have significant dependent responsibilities. The cost-of-living crisis creates additional pressures for learners where there is no maintenance element to finance.

Despite the positives shared about digital technology removing barriers, employer and provider size was highlighted by many participants as a barrier for the greater use of technology. Smaller providers do not have the same capacity and resources to apply technological innovation to learning design and delivery.  This is worsened by the short-term nature of funding, identified in Discovery Blog 2 as a barrier to developing learner approaches. Innovative approaches require time, risk, and learning through mistakes, which small providers often don’t have the financial resources to achieve.

So, what’s next?

We are following up from our workshops by holding a series of focus groups with providers, learners, non-learners and recent career changers. Together we will publish our findings in a series of articles which along with our own research will inform a white paper that sets out a programme of grant funding, partnerships, and advocacy.

Thank you to the workshop contributors for an interesting and insightful discussion: Matt Rhodes (AOC), Olly Newton (Edge Foundation), Vikki Liogier (Education and Training Foundation), Polly Morgan (iDEA Foundation), Paul McKean (Jisc), Michael Lemin (NCFE), Isabel Newman (NESTA), Lisa Morrison-Coulthard (NFER), Professor Ellen Boeren (University of Glasgow), Ginny Page (Gatsby), Reina Yaidoo (Bassajamba), Debbie Carlton (Dynamic Knowledge), Andy Erwich (AELP), Victoria Geroe (CBI), Bethan Collins (CIPD Wales), Michael Lewis (West Midlands Combined Authority), Hannah Kirkbride (Career Matters), Helen Cuthbert (AELP).

The VocTech Challenge: Skills for an economy in transition

At Ufi we are committed to connecting solutions to problems and bringing people together to share and find new connections, in particular in these constrained times when we all have to find ways to work smarter, foster collaboration and accelerate the pace of change.

As an economy we are taking big steps forward into a sustainable, digital future where skills are key to unlocking UK productivity and competitiveness. At Ufi we want those opportunities to be for everyone, whatever their starting point in their journey into learning and work. Where people aren’t just playing catch-up but have the chance to thrive in new industries and sectors.

Together with Learning and Work Institute our VocTech Challenge will delve deeper into what has already been ‘learnt’ and seek new insights into how we can create a UK skills system, underpinned by tech, that helps to narrow inequalities and ensure every adult can participate in learning throughout their working lives so that as our economy continues to evolve and transition, no one is left behind.

We’re excited to see what issues are surfaced. These will shape a grant call and other commissioned activities that Ufi will announce in June.

Take a look and get involved.

This article is a summary of the findings from our recent workshops. More detailed reflections are available here.