Time for action: the UK must act now to improve skills or risk falling further behind in the world

Learning and skills play a central role in driving economic growth, promoting social justice and supporting inclusive communities. However, the UK’s skills base has long lagged that of comparator countries and over the last decade the rate of improvement in the UK’s skills base has stalled. This is the result of cuts in public funding for adult skills, alongside falling employer investment in skills.


11 03 2019


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Learning and Work Institute’s report shows that as a result the UK is likely to fall further back in the international league tables by 2030.

The skills profile will improve on current trends – with the proportion of adults qualified below GCSE-equivalent level falling from 26% to 21% and the proportion of adults qualified at least to degree level rising from 38% to 43%.

But other countries are improving too, meaning the UK is poised to:

  • Fall from 4th to 6th of the G7 countries for low skills;
  • Remain 5th for intermediate qualifications; and
  • Remain 4th for higher qualifications

This will hold back economic growth and social justice and runs the risk of the UK going backwards whilst other countries go forwards. This is ever more important for the UK’s future prosperity as it leaves the EU.

Time for Action: Skills for economic growth and social justice


Stephen Evans, chief executive of Learning and Work Institute said:
“The Great Recession has been followed by a Great Stagnation in economic growth, holding back living standards and limiting the money available for public services. This is neither inevitable nor unavoidable. Seismic shifts in the global economy, driven by advances in technology, create huge opportunities. Making the most of them will require a world class skills base.”

Learning and Work Institute has set out a higher ambition for the UK which would involve making sure more people have functional literacy and numeracy and intermediate qualifications.

This means an extra:

  • 3 million people to improve functional literacy and numeracy by 2030
  • 9 million people to achieve level 2 (GCSE equivalent) qualifications
  • 8 million to achieve level 3 (A Level equivalent) qualifications.

This would boost our economy by £20 billion per year and help another 200k people into work. It would require extra investment of £1.9 billion per year and reversing the falls in the number of adults improving their skills each year seen since 2010.

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges said:
“This report by Learning and Work Institute sets out a compelling case for investing more in our people. The economic and social returns from modest increases in government and employer investment in education and skills for adults is clear and impressive. With a spending review imminent and employers more acutely aware of recruitment difficulties than ever, this report is very timely. I hope that the Chancellor and the CBI as well as others take heed.”

In the report, Learning and Work Institute identify that the UK faces a perfect storm of declines in skills training across the board:

  • UK employer investment has fallen and per worker is half the EU average; and £5.1bn less in real terms than ten years ago
  • Public investment is down – total funding for adult learning has been cut by 45% in real term since 2009-10
  • Participation in adult learning is falling – L&W surveys show 36% of adults learning in the last 3 years – the lowest participation rate in 20 years

Robert Halfon MP, chair of the Education Select Committee said:
“Education is a ladder of opportunity that should give everyone, no matter what their background, the chance to climb to the jobs, security and prosperity waiting for them at the top. Skills, apprenticeships, and adult education are vital rungs on this ladder. Yet, around nine million of all working aged adults in England have low basic skills and over a third of workers in England do not hold suitable qualifications for the jobs they do.

“This skills problem is a social justice issue. Our most disadvantaged individuals pay the highest price for low skills but also have the most to gain from up-skilling their way out of deprivation. I am very grateful to Learning and Work Institute for their longstanding commitment to achieve social justice through education, and I am pleased to support them with the launch of their 2030 Skills Vision report.”

Cllr Sir Richard Leese, chair of the Local Government Association’s City Regions Board said:

“This timely report highlights how vital it is that we provide opportunities to increase skills levels and help adults retrain and upskill so we can drive up productivity and start to close local skills gaps. Councils and combined authorities play an important role in their communities, working with local and national partners, to both stimulate and meet demand for skills development, through targeted engagement and delivery of a relevant, flexible, local offer.

Ensuring the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) and the forthcoming Local Industrial Strategies are adequately resourced, have sufficient devolution and local commissioning, and an ability to target provision to support inclusive growth and productivity will be critical to achieving this goal.”

John Cope, Head of Education and Skills at CBI said:

“It doesn’t take long in a conversation with one of our 190,000 members to get onto the issue of education and skills. Not only because it underpins productivity, but also how important it is to social justice and prosperity.

There are a lot of challenges that business are facing with the aging population and the rise of automation and AI. This means that those higher level skills are needed now more than ever in people’s lives.

In response to this new report, we propose that we need to rethink GCSEs to try and create more space for work experience and social action. We also need to improve the options available in post-16 education and rethink A-Levels. Employers are looking for a wider set of skills than the two, three or four subject choices we make at the age of 16, so we need to be looking at alternatives that provide a much broader and balanced curriculum.”