From Rebecca Garrod Waters, CEO of Ufi VocTech Trust
Fair access to the new future of work
2021 has proved to be another odd year, and for Ufi VocTech Trust our charitable mission to champion the power of technology to improve skills for work and deliver better outcomes for all has been as critical as ever. It’s been a privilege to lead a community pushing for inclusive, human-centred experiences to “level up learning”, and we have done so using our full toolkit: grant funding, venture investment and advocacy.
In this Christmas message, I wanted to share some of our highlights and allow us to reflect on learnings and opportunities for 2022.
Learners rightly at the centre
In the spring of 2021, we published our VocTech Challenge White Paper, which was the culmination of three months of dialogue with people and organisations from across the adult skills world, announced at the EdTech Summit.
The VocTech Challenge approach was taken to ensure that our activities were laser-focused on learner communities most impacted by the growing digital divide.
Five themes came through clearly from the process, but the role of social and practical support alongside building learner confidence really stood out as essential to accessing skills development opportunities. (Too often popular personalised learning tools gear towards individual effort, without regard for a learner community, culture or social learning factors.)
This insight work has really helped shaped our advocacy this year. For example, our response to the UK Government’s ‘Skills for Jobs’ Bill, which we believe is focusing too heavily on the needs of employers alone.
Indeed, we have advocated for more inclusive, vocational learning technology at the All-Parliamentary Party Group for Further Education and Lifelong Learning and All-Parliamentary Party Group for EdTech and we found that the views of the Association of Colleges, Resolution Foundation and Parliamentarians mirrored many of the issues we identified in our Green and White papers.
This year, we have been delighted to welcome Josh Smith, into the role of Public Affairs Officer at Ufi, to spearhead much of this important work and keep learners at the centre of the conversation.
Advocacy into action
The great thing about Ufi VocTech Trust is we can take this advocacy and put it into action. At the very start of the year, we did just that by announcing the mission-alignment of our entire £50m investment portfolio (the money that underpins Ufi), using frameworks from the UN Sustainable Development Goals and appointing Credit Suisse to implement our new approach. This means that we have a truly holistic approach to our impact; through grants, venture investment and investment capital, to support vocational educational technology and have a positive outcome. (The 100% for Impact event that took place during the Week of VocTech explains more about our efforts in this area). We are always thoughtful about everything we do.
Our VocTech Challenge insight work gave us an excellent thesis to guide our activities and in 2021 we allocated VocTech Seed grant funding of £700,000 - all supporting learner access and confidence, and you can see the fifteen supported projects here.
These include projects such as:
- Home Achievement Academy, from One Awards: An online blended learning platform where social housing tenants can access learning directly from home;
- AI-driven learning platform for reception staff at GP practices, from Cenigma: A Natural Language Processor (NLP) / Machine Learning (ML) agent that can understand recorded or real-time conversations between patients and reception staff; and
- Creating a gamification platform for retaining essential UK engineering skills, from Enginuity: A gamified learning platform to capture and exchange best practice, informal and tacit knowledge and expertise from skilled workers.
- CAPSLOCK is an education institute, offering learners intensive bootcamp training, starting in cyber-security. The programme is delivered entirely within a collaborative digital learning environment that has been built to simulate real working scenarios, and is built around an income-sharing agreement which lowers the barriers to entry for learners.
- Springpod is a careers platform where students can experience the world of work and university before they apply. Students can find a virtual work experience or degree taster programme in their industry or subject of choice. Over 110,000 young people enrolled in Springpod's virtual work experience programmes in the first half of 2021, with 90% of students who complete a programme felt confident about finding a job in the future.
Partnerships and surfacing best practice
The UK skills crisis is estimated to be costing organisations £6.3 billion, and 91% of companies have struggled to find workers with the right skills over the past 12 months. We all remember the headlines about lorry drivers, the energy crisis, and the “great resignation.” It affects us all and hurts us all. Improving skills for work will be a sector and societal-wide endeavour and 2021 has seen us build some excellent partnerships with organisations that share our passion to make positive change.
In November, we announced our partnership with the RSA. The RSA’s Learning Society team’s literature review confirmed that the people currently most likely to engage with adult learning opportunities, in person or digital, are those who already have positive associations with learning. We are building on past collaborations, including the RSA’s Cities of Learning project, to better understand the needs and motivations of people who have not thrived in traditional education and to showcase how placed-based solutions, underpinned by technology, can break down barriers to learning. Our first joint research report from the partnership will be published in spring 2022. Sign-up to the Ufi Community Newsletter to ensure you receive a copy.
This year, we co-published the report Developing skills and establishing new pathways into jobs in collaboration with Emerge, Coursera, and Filtered, and based on extensive market research and interviews with industry experts. This work underlines that action can be taken to close the skills gap; the HGV driver issue we all read about this year hasn’t been a shortage of workers, it’s been a shortage of suitably skilled workers, and in the report, we argue for the post-16 educational pathway focus to move away from qualifications and towards competencies.
We were also delighted this year to showcase our collaborations with the AoC, ALT and many more at our annual Week of VocTech, the celebration of all things vocational learning technology. We hosted more than a dozen events during the week, including on the critical areas of “Future of Work”, Assessment, Data and Ethics, and Inclusion, and I’d encourage you to pick out anything that speaks to you and watch back here.
The joy of face-to-face
At Ufi we live our values as a small and distributed “remote” team – which is now very fashionable! As with everybody else, part of what 2021 has demonstrated for us is the joy of face-to-face connection, interspersed around our remote work.
This year we’ve really made the most of the opportunities we have had to be together, and been even more convinced by the importance of hybrid working – our model of a dispersed workforce supported by good use of tech and a structured approach to collective engagement.
It was also great for all of the team to have the opportunity to engage with some of the Ufi family and the wider sector at a variety of events, including Louise Rowland’s presentation at Online Educa Berlin (OEB), a brilliant Week of VocTech and a chance to celebrate the work of Ufi at the Learning Technology Awards.
It was great to be at the Learning Technology Awards and have the chance to meet up with old friends and make some new acquaintances. We were also lucky enough to be shortlisted in the "Learning Organisation of the Year" category for our work during the pandemic and our VocTech Challenge to tackle the digital divide; and proud that eight projects we have funded were also on the LTA shortlist in different categories.
On the night, we walked away with a Gold - with CENTURY Tech winning "Best use of learning data analytics to impact learner and business performance"; a Silver - with iDEA Foundation winning "Best learning technology project – public & non-profit sector"; and a Bronze - with the NYA (National Youth Agency) winning "Best online distance learning programme".
Sharing stories, catalysing change
Ufi's strategy has four pillars: making change now; change for a better future; supporting the market; and building the VocTech Community.
In 2021, we explored ways to surface the lived experiences of our stakeholders, to bring people together and provide resources to catalyse change. For example, our #VocTechFutures series with FE News has uncovered crucial insights on vocational learning technology in the prison, and health and social care sectors. And we also kicked off this year’s Week of VocTech with our new series of the VocTech Podcast. Our first episode looked at removing barriers in skills development, and hosted guests from CAPSLOCK, ZINC VC, and Digitalnauts talking about everything from geo-located skills marketplaces, to VR for empathy building and developing cyber reskilling for employers like the BBC.
"People in the past who have been cleaners, taxi drivers, dancers, chefs...have come through this programme and created the most diverse and incredible environment full of different perspectives on how to tackle real-world cyber challenges."
Dr Andrea Cullen, Lead Tutor & Co-founder, CAPSLOCK
You can search the back catalogue of VocTech podcast episodes here.
Looking ahead to 2022
In 2022, we will be building on our work to convene the sector and its research for the benefit of learners. In January, we look forward to welcoming author, James Plunkett as our guest on The VocTech Podcast. James’ book End State is a Guardian political book of the year, and James has some excellent insights on lifelong learning through his research and work at Citizens Advice as the Executive Director for Design, Data & Technology Policy & Advocacy, and his past work at both the Young Foundation and Resolution Foundation.
Throughout the year we will also be working across our areas of expertise – grants, public affairs and investments - to bring thematic insights on areas such as reskilling and assessment, in addition to our research work with the RSA.
And we are also very excited to have announced just last month that our VocTech Seed 2022 grant funding will be open for applications from 12 January to 9 February and then again between June and July, with over £1m of funding of between £15 and £50k available to successful projects.
Our Ufi Ventures team are also working hard to uncover mission-aligned ventures in a buoyant market which has experienced a 10X growth in EdTech VC investment in Europe since 2014.
With a renewed sense of what technology is for, and what it cannot replace, we are excited to help support a more human-centred approach to learning, with creativity, empathy, communication and collaboration at the core and the full breadth of learners benefiting from the flexibility and scale that technology can afford us. New educational models are gaining strength, 5G and 6G technologies are bringing cost-effective simulation experiences and SaaS models to all sorts of sectors, including energy and transportation, and we are really hopeful about what innovations we expect to see flow into our grant and investment conversations.
On that note, I wish you a restful Christmas and a very happy and healthy 2022.