Christmas Message

The power of technology to unlock opportunity

Mistletoe showing on a computer's web browser.

By Rebecca Garrod Waters, CEO of Ufi VocTech Trust

At Ufi VocTech Trust, we champion the power of technology to improve skills for work and deliver better outcomes for all. We have been grant funding, investing, and generally advocating for VocTech - that is, technology to support adult vocational skills - since 2012. We do this because we believe;

that every individual and employer can benefit from the acquisition of new skills.

that VocTech (vocational technology) is an enabler for more flexible, engaging learning experiences and improved learner outcomes.

that through supporting better learning for work in all sectors the opportunities for personal, business and societal growth are immense.

Make change happen: VocTech Now

Christmas newsletters are all about looking back and reflecting on the year.

Well, in 2020, our mission to support adult vocational skills through technology suddenly became incredibly prescient. When we launched our Challenge process in 2017, with a focus on manufacturing, and developed it in 2019 with a focus on changing roles and pathways to work using design thinking to bring new organisations into the VocTech community, we could not have predicted that our focus on ‘changes in the 21st Century Workplace’ could have accelerated to such a degree in 2020!

The Covid-19 pandemic shifted 37 billion students globally to studying and learning from home, meanwhile widespread remote working practices were reflected in 200 million Microsoft Teams meeting participants meeting in a single day, generating more than 4.1 billion meeting minutes! At the start of the pandemic in Spring 2020, lifelong learning platform Coursera experienced 10.3 million enrolments in 30 days. But, the Association of Colleges also reported 10,000 further education learners without devices needed for learning to continue, and the Spending Review forecast unemployment of 7.5% by spring 2021, with 2.6 million people out of work (disproportionately affecting those in the hospitality sector).

Remote working and learning, upskilling, and reskilling (especially in digital) has changed incredibly fast this year, along with a volatile employment landscape. And we know that not everyone is able to access the opportunities of remote working. Too many people remain on the wrong side of the digital divide. So, how did we respond?

With the onset of lockdown measures and the immediate need to operate remote and dispersed learning models, we pivoted to provide immediate support and assistance to teachers and trainers, with over 1000 organisations engaging with our VocTech Now funding call and over 500 applying.

The VocTech Now scheme offered almost £700,000 in total funding, with over £225,000 specifically for Further Education Colleges, and supporting 25,000 learners in need.

Our support helped colleges and training providers tackle immediate digital access, whilst underpinning more flexible and accessible learning longer term. For example;

Lancaster & Morecambe College went from "0 to 100", or from survival mode on email to developing whole-college-wide staff CPD and VLE digital capabilities, as a result of their successful grant.

South West College in Belfast used funding to create an expert-lead health and social care 24/7 digital content hub to empower their young learners on new experiences such as end-of-life-care. This helped frontline teams and learners to manage anxiety during peak Covid scenarios.

The Isle of Wight College used their successful grant to deploy Microsoft Teams successfully to best connect lecturers, employers and apprentice learners with English and Maths functional skills, but also pastoral support to carry on learning and apprentice programmes at a time when three in five organisations have stopped recruiting apprentices due to Covid-19.

Barnardo’s developed a virtual learning environment to ensure that disadvantaged and vulnerable young people were able to continue developing vital employment skills throughout Covid.

The Communities of Practice project, led by the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) and funded by Ufi - the VocTech Trust, worked to establish a successful ‘community of practice’ (CoP) where vocational teaching staff are able to acquire, develop and share the digital, and digital pedagogical skills they need to thrive in vocational education.

You can listen in to some of these transformative stories in this VocTech Podcast episode:

Reasons for hope

Although 2020 has been an extremely difficult year, there are also reasons for hope as we enter this Christmas period and the new year.

Digital UpSkilling

Firstly, the onset of the global pandemic has driven people to uptake digital tools and move to online or digital provision who were previously resistant, as well as hastening the uptake among those already on the journey. This has allowed for more flexible and accessible learning to develop or continue, whether in colleges or in the workplace.

VocTech Goes Mainstream

Next, the widespread use case and uptake of digital tools has pushed VocTech - that is technology to support adult vocational skills - into the mainstream.

That TIME's best inventions of 2020 is led by Virti, a training platform that drops workers into high-stress augmented and virtual reality scenarios, where they can practice responding and receive feedback, is telling. (Virti were part of the Ufi grant funded project Tripping The Thames in 2018 and we have Virti on The VocTech Podcast to tell us more about their work in January 2021). DeepMind's breakthrough deep-learning programme for determining the 3D shapes of proteins, which will help molecular biologists in previously unfathomable ways, has similarly captured the public imagination.

Investment in VocTech

Finally, much-needed investment is flowing into the vocational learning and vocational technology sector. The Government has announced a £375m skills package, including £138m to provide Lifetime Skills Guarantee and a new £4.6bn package to help people back to work. We know this is a welcome start, but that much more will be needed.

In 2021, Ufi will 'go live' with a longer-term project which has looked carefully at how Ufi's own funds are invested. Our goal is to have our own fund reflect our mission in vocational technologies, further accelerating the pace of positive social impact, as well as a financial return. (Think of the work in divestment of pension funds out of non-renewable energy portfolios, where as we are proactively shifting our funds into the vocational technologies sector we support alongside meeting other critical sustainable development goals). You'll hear more from Joe Ludlow, our impact investment director, on this exciting development later in the year.

2021: More impact for those less well served

We don't want them to keep identifying as offenders or even ex-offenders. We want them to identify as students.

In 2020, COVID exposed fault-lines of inequality which need to be addressed, with many now more at risk than ever from being excluded from education and training and being able to access employment. And employers in all sectors struggling to find a ‘new normal’ in the face of current restrictions.

As Ufi VocTech Trust, we have always been about relentlessly practical change and we are passionate about continuing our positive impact as we continue to see out the "post"-COVID world. Our core strategy has always been to focus on 'unloved’ communities who are not well served by mainstream provision, whether that be because of sector, job type, geography or other challenge For example, we supported BEAM to develop and scale their online crowdfunding platform to open access to new training opportunities for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. And we worked with Meganexus, NIACRO (and their project partner Sentireal), Fluence and Socrates Software to support vocational learning within the criminal justice system.

Again, you can listen in to their joint work in this episode of The VocTech Podcast:

In 2021 we continue this work and we are inviting you to be part of our process for making change happen, through collaboration, co-investment and advocacy.

How can you get involved?

VocTech Challenge 2021: we need you

Specifically, in 2021, we will have our VocTech Seed and VocTech Ignite funding rounds, but we will also be focusing efforts on our challenge fund. The VocTech Challenge 2021 will use discovery and design thinking processes to identify those at most risk of being excluded by a widening economic and social divide, and provide an opportunity for vocational technology to tackle their learning and training needs head on.

We have started our own discovery phase to best serve the needs of learners and employers, and we invite you to take part in discussions with us, share your ideas, make new connections and partnerships with like-minded VocTech pioneers so that we can identify the greatest need and the greatest solutions. Without being prescriptive on the outcome, we will take our ‘relentlessly practical’ values and make sure that we learn from what works. Whatever we fund, it has to be capable of making change quickly. To get involved, email us at:

VocTeach: we need you 

In addition to the VocTech Challenge, we also recognise the critical need for a confident and skilled vocational teaching and training sector to ensure vocational technologies have the highest impact. In 2021, VocTeach, in collaboration with the Open University, is exploring the need for an aggregator to signpost to lesson content, interactive lesson planning and teaching delivery tools, so that teachers and trainers can find the resources they need. Teachers and trainers, particularly in the vocational sector, face real challenges right now. Not only are they dealing with the chaos created by Covid, but the funding landscape continues to be fragmented - for providers, learners, teachers, and employers – and there remains uncertainty in many areas. VocTeach aims to provide some coherence so that teachers and trainers can come to a single place – whether for help with tech for delivering teaching, for blended pedagogy, or curriculum-aligned lesson content – that will allow them to instantly see the support and free resources they need. Our long term vision for VocTeach is that it is becomes a tool for the vocational community and is owned by the vocational community, delivering against the critical needs identified. Again, we invite you to get involved.

Change for a better future: Humans and machines in it together

At Ufi, we are passionate about how vocational technology can improve people's working lives. As part of our theory of change, we have worked with strategic consultancy Tyton Partners this year to develop a robust market intelligence programme to research and analyse investment activity in VocTech so that we can better support market growth. This has been a fascinating process, uncovering many forms of the skills gaps we have all come to know about. For example, regional disparity and zero hours contracts present significant challenges to workers' skills development.

The UK's East Midlands region employs 92,000 workers on zero hours contracts - a 40% increase since 2018 and the highest rate in the country. Whilst, in the U.S, Deloitte and Randstand forecast half of the workforce being "gig" by 2025

Part of this gig economy is about a decoupling of wages, productivity and security for low and middle-skilled workers, who are often also the ones overlooked by traditional learning and training opportunities.

We want to support initiatives which pro-actively support these workers to reskill and find more secure and better-paid opportunities. That's why we have worked alongside the Resolution Foundation to support their WorkerTech programme.

The Workertech Programme supports pre-seed and seed-stage organisations seeking to harness technology to improve the prospects, power and career-choices of workers – particularly those on low-pay or in insecure employment. These include WorkerBird, whose target users are employed adults in England who are aged over 24 years, without a qualification at degree level and earning less than £35,000 per year, with a focus on those roles at risk of automation. They use labour market information to support people to make better-informed decisions about their future careers.

Organise are another venture, whose online network exposed harassment at Ted Baker, won a pay rise for Superdrug warehouse staff and helps hundreds of thousands of people call out bad bosses. Employers large and small are slowly realising that large-scale offloading of workers without requisite skills is no longer sustainable and reskilling is the way to go.

You can hear Cansu Deniz Bayrak, Senior Partner, Bethnal Green Ventures talking more about some of the innovations coming through the programme here:

In addition, we are tracking market initiatives which work to strengthen the best of humans and machines to learn in the workplace, learn in a formal education setting, learn the skills you need to change job, improve your job or get a job.

For example, is an emerging VocTech provider valued $100m that uses AI to augment, but not replace, workers in finance and operations. Their founders argue AI doesn't understand its own competency, and never will, so it does not intend to replace decision makers, whilst CloudFactory raised $65m in November to expand its own unique offering, which relies on skilled frontline workers to vet the data feeding AI algorithms.

Part of our role is about advocating this human-centred approach and sharing what works, when, and in which contexts. In November, we were pleased to welcome so many of you to our Week of VocTech, including our annual showcase. You can watch many of the sessions back here. We also published our Impact Summary Report this year, covering our five-year funding strategy - Learning Without Walls - that set out our ambitions and intentions, spanning 2015-2020. The report found that our funding made a difference in three main areas:

Impact at learner level

Impact at an organisational level.

Impact across the digital vocational sector

We are proud of our impact to date, and we look forward to building on our impact metrics going forward, and working collaboratively with the sector to achieve our goals. This will require all of us to help identify underutilized talent, improve the access to quality training and set up the basic infrastructure and work culture for success. We are looking forward to the year ahead and supporting this important work.

Best wishes,

Rebecca Garrod-Waters

We would love for you to join us on our mission.

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