Professor Nic Beech, Vice-Chancellor, Middlesex University

The modern, global labour market needs both determinate skills, ones which are clear and operate within closed systems (what used to be called ‘hard’ skills) and complex connective skills which are about connecting ideas and people, making change and managing the complexities of professional practice (what used to be called ‘soft’ skills). I include among these emotional intelligence, the ability to manage mental health and wellbeing and, importantly, cultural intelligence, the ability to operate in global environments.

To create these practice-orientated, complex skills which are so critical for society and the economy we need to build on best practice in connecting education and business (and to learn from our research on how to do this). Historically, there has been a ‘flip-flop’ between assuming universities know best and application of their knowledge is ‘downstream’ in businesses or, conversely, an over-correction in which business is seen as ‘cutting-edge’ and is held to be responsible for telling universities what is required in skills. But we know that knowledge doesn’t develop well in such hierarchical contexts where there is a separation of business and education. In reality, universities and organisations both bring perspectives and insights – sometimes complementary and sometimes at odds. The key thing is to enable an interaction which delivers a curriculum containing both determinate and complex connective skills. This requires a collaborative approach in which we don’t expect perfect agreement but in which difference is valued for the creativity it can stimulate.

For example, Middlesex is at the heart of this kind of collaboration through the Creative Academy Hub, launched in January 2022 as part of the Mayor of London’s Academies Programme, brings together Film London, Capital City College Group, London Higher and Middlesex University to support training and education to help people into paid positions and good work across the creative film, TV, animation, VFX and games sectors. The University is also working with the screen skills industry body ScreenSkills and created guidelines for students to manage the risk of working on a film, TV or other visual media production during the pandemic.

Alongside welcome plans for a lifelong loan entitlement, use of credit as a common currency and microcredentials, we need skills policy that consistently supports collaborative approaches between further education, employers and higher education for lifelong learning. While the Government is consulting on a lifelong loan entitlement, it is also important to understand how different parts of the system can work together, particularly at a time when the policy context has encouraged competition and focuses on hierarchy and difference between sectors. Importantly, we should also avoid introducing other measures that could damage our aspiration to support lifelong learning and skills creation.

There is a real risk that the recent proposals on data and metrics steer us away from what we’re trying to achieve. Care needs to be taken to  focus on the learner and enable personalised routes to success that work for the context of the individual. As Gordon Marsden highlights in the recent Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up report on Levelling Up, education has a role to play in social justice and mobility which includes social care, health and economic development. Without a personalised approach we miss out on the contribution of those who do not fit the traditional approach to learning.

As Professor Graeme Atherton points out in the same report on levelling up, we need a focus on people and their connections and what’s possible in their context rather than a simplistic approach based on postcodes or statistics. Pitting regions against each other misses a more subtle picture of where support is needed. For example the 2019 Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) shows a third of London boroughs are still within the top 30% of the most deprived across England and focusing on income (Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index – IDACI), eighteen London boroughs rank in the most deprived 10%. Similarly the recent proposals for Minimum Entry Requirements for access to student finance based on a GCSE or A level grade threshold risk denying access to learners who could flourish at university and make an important contribution to society and the economy.

We must move beyond blunt versions of levelling up to enable personalised routes to success supported by strong collaboration between universities, further education and business for lifelong learning. This is how we can create the practice-oriented complex connective skills we so need.