Ufi Christmas message 2022

Reflections from our CEO, Rebecca Garrod-Waters

The Future of Work is Now

‘Permacrisis’ was the Collins dictionary word of 2022 and this felt fitting given the turbulence of the past few years. Defined as ‘an extended period of instability and insecurity, especially one resulting from a series of catastrophic events’, it captured that feeling that we are lurching from one crisis to another without end in sight. As the UK recovers from the effects of Brexit and the pandemic, we now face further precarity from widening regional disparities, high inflation, rising interest rates, a war in Ukraine and skills shortages spanning nearly all industries. It’s remarkable to reflect that over the past six months we’ve seen two monarchs, three Prime Ministers, four Chancellors and five Education Secretaries.

As we navigate this new state of ‘permacrisis’ and flux, it’s increasingly clear that complacency is not an option. Our jointly published 'Rebalancing Adult Learning’ report with our strategic partners from the Royal Society of Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce (RSA) concludes that the UK is facing a skills emergency and that lifelong learning is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’ but a necessity for survival. The world of work is rapidly changing and the only thing that can be counted on is uncertainty. Digital transformation is hitting virtually every industry and agility is needed to continually upskill and reskill our workforce. The message is no longer to ‘prepare for the future work’ because ‘the future of work is now’.

UTI_Showcase _event_RSA_2022_AP_076

(Rebecca and RSA CEO Andy Haldane discuss UK skills as part of our Week of VocTech 2022)

Levelling up learning for all

If this seems a rather pessimistic beginning to a seasonal message, I would like to offer an antidote to ‘permacrisis’, which will form the basis of my reflections this year. This antidote is ‘togetherness’. For it is only when we join forces that we can level up learning and life chances for everyone. The goal is to achieve economic growth in a way that allows everyone to move forward together and flourish together. This goes to the very core of our mission at Ufi, where we are relentlessly focused on supporting people through access to learning and skills; raising confidence, motivation, and helping all adult learners to take that next step forward.

At the very heart of our strategy at Ufi are the UK’s learners who are furthest from opportunity. We are working towards a skills system designed for all; which prioritises those who are furthest away from learning to create a more equitable future for all. We can’t reinforce strongly enough that it is only when we level up learning for everyone that we can collectively flourish.

These sentiments were echoed in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s speech to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) last month as he spoke of ending “once and for all the mistaken idea that learning is something you finish at 18” – and we believe that an investment in skills for everyone is critical for just and fair economic growth.

I am therefore very proud that we have this year supported another 27 projects (bringing our total to over 250) addressing current and developing skills challenges faced by a number of industry sectors across the UK and supporting a wide range of learner groups. Each project is focused on strengthening opportunities for learner groups who are under supported by traditional learning, including:

  1. A mobile app and online community to support nail technicians from Elize Star Nails
  2. A project supporting managers and supervisors in the food service sector to develop their leadership skills from Be the Business
  3. Technology connecting adults on lower incomes to learning providers from EntitledTo

Three care workers learning on a laptop

The rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for skills development

The topic of AI is one that is currently getting a lot interest in the media, not least because of the release of ChatGPT, from the Elon Musk founded OpenAI. Chat GPT is free to access, which opens it up to huge numbers of users and huge opportunities.

AI is likely to have a significant impact on vocational education in the future. One of the key ways that AI will change vocational education is by making it more personalised and tailored to individual students’ needs and abilities. With the help of AI, tutoring systems and learning platforms can provide real-time feedback and support to help students learn complex skills more quickly and easily. Additionally, AI can be used to analyse vast amounts of data to identify trends and patterns in student performance, allowing educators to identify areas where students may need additional support and adjust their teaching methods accordingly. Overall, the use of AI in vocational education has the potential to improve outcomes for students and enhance the quality of vocational training programs.

But then you’d expect an AI chatbot to say that, wouldn’t you? The fact that reasonable text (as in the paragraph above) can be instantly obtained from a free source online is game changing, and the debates and discussions about what this means for education are happening across the world. This is much more significant than ‘essay mills’ or old-fashioned plagiarism and it really opens up the question – what do we want from our learners? Do we want to see that they can reproduce facts and text, or are we really interested in finding out what they have learnt and how they might apply their new understanding or skill?

Experience, evidence and understanding are going to be critical in navigating the new world – perhaps flipping the classroom in a much more significant way than just the here or there ‘flipped classroom’ model of the noughties.

It has been great to see the support we have been able to provide to organisations looking to harness AI to support adult skills development. Ufi supported projects include:

  1. A campus digital assistant developed by Bolton College to provide on-demand assistance for their students that was praised by Damian Hinds, as Education Secretary
  2. A project to support the long-term unemployed with confidence and practical employability skills from First Step Trust
  3. A transcription solution for rapid skills development from Leapian
College students interact with a digital assistant

(Bolton College students interact with the Ada digital assistant)

Greater impact through ‘togetherness’

It’s heartening to see new interest in lifelong learning this year from political leaders of both major parties. Early this year, the government pledged to increase skills training and a focus on wellbeing with the publication of a ‘Levelling Up’ white paper. Although some argued that the policy failed to match the political rhetoric, it was taken as a welcome sign that adult education and skills were firmly back on the political agenda. Later in the year, the Labour Party’s Council of Skills Advisers, led by Lord Blunkett, called for the UK to “put education and training back at the centre of government thinking” and I hope that this report can help start a shift in the skills debate. It is time we moved away from specific industrial needs and narrow isolated reforms, towards a wider understanding of vocational learning that is positioned as the foundation of a thriving economy.

On the continued subject of ‘togetherness’, I had the privilege of attending the OEB conference in Berlin last month as part of a global, cross-sector conference to explore technology supported learning and training. Joined by colleagues from both the Ufi grant funding and Ufi Ventures teams, I presented on ‘Building Future Skills and Employability’ alongside CEO Maren Deepwell from our Strategic Partners the Association for Learning Technology (ALT). As we shared our stories and recommendations with likeminded colleagues across the world, we were reminded of the power of collaboration and benefits that come from a diversity of voices purposefully brought together.

Closer to home, we hosted an event in Wales following the Welsh Government’s Digital 2030 strategy in June. Together with policy makers, technology leaders, educators, and other key Welsh stakeholders we explored themes around skills improvement and the creation a more equitable economy. Concerns were expressed that Welsh businesses would not be able to deliver their potential due to skills shortages and we explored ways of harnessing the potential of digital to meet the skills requirements of the future. I look forward to working closely with Welsh stakeholders to deliver better outcomes for all into 2023 and beyond, while continuing our conversations throughout the four nations. I’m particularly looking forward to February when we will be hosting an event in Scotland to engage with our Scottish colleagues on digital skills for a just transition.

These events and others underscore the importance of acting in community, and with togetherness in mind, as we continue to nurture our relationships with our growing list of Strategic Partnerships. I look forward to working more closely with our newest partners from The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), with whom we will be developing insight into the training sector and exploring how technology can be harnessed to improve delivery. 2022 also saw us join forces with Catch 22 to mobilise the power and energy of technology ventures to drive reform in youth employment services. With further support from the Social Tech Trust, Hatch and Microsoft, we launched ‘The Social Tech Amplifier’ to support early-stages ventures to scale new and impactful technology solutions. This will ultimately equip more young people to successfully navigate the future of work and I look forward to welcoming the first cohort of organisations in 2023.

Rhun ap Iorwerth MS

(Rhun ap Iorwerth MS at our Welsh stakeholder event)

The business case for adult skills investment

The Ufi Ventures team also continues to expand under the leadership of Helen Gironi who was appointed in January; with the addition of Investment Associate, Ellasaid Woodhouse, and three new portfolio companies: Assemble You, Mobilise and Purlos. The first, helping empowering screen-fatigued or deskless frontline workers to learn on the go through the power of podcasts; the second, providing access to knowledge, expertise, and skills for unpaid carers in the UK; and the third transforming how students interact with education providers through AI. This points to the tremendous commercial value of adult learning and skills investment - in addition to the many individual and societal gains, such as improved personal confidence, motivation, employability, and productivity. The team report several additional deals in the pipeline for the new year.

In national investment news, we saw the creation of the UK’s first ‘edtech unicorn’ - a privately held company valued at over $1bn. Specialising in professional apprenticeships as an alternative to higher education and corporate training, we’re proud that Multiverse was a 2016 recipient of Ufi grant funding. And in further celebratory news, we recently had occasion to enjoy the successes of four Ufi-supported organisations at the prestigious Learning Technology Awards.

  1. CAPSLOCK – Gold Winners for “Best online distance learning programme”
  2. Digital Unite  – Bronze Winners of “Best use of blended learning – public and non-profit sector”
  3. Mobilise – Silver Winners of “Best use of social and collaborative learning technologies”
  4. Sempai – Silver Winners of “Excellence in the design of learning content – commercial sector (UK)”
CAPSLOCK win photo

(CAPSLOCK and Ufi's Louise Rowland at the LTA 2022 awards)

Looking ahead

Inspired by these successes, it’s at this time of year that we look ahead at what’s to come.

Early in the New Year we will be launching our VocTech Activate Grant Fund, with applications opening on 11 January. We look forward to supporting the next cohort of teams using new technologies and approaches to tackle vocational learning challenges. We invite anyone who would like to learn more to join one of our pre-application workshops.

2023 will also see the launch of our next grant funding evaluation report. Due for publication in the Spring, the report will explore the impact of our grant-funding work and share insights gathered from more than 100 Ufi supported projects.

Lastly, we look forward to launching our next VocTech Challenge. This substantial programme of work will once more bring our workstreams together (grant-funding, strategic partnerships and advocacy) to tackle a specific challenge facing adult learners in the UK. We will be announcing more about the Challenge, and how to get involved, in the New Year.

So, on that note, and in the spirit of even greater impact through ‘togetherness’ for 2023, I wish you a very happy and restful Christmas break.

Rebecca Garrod-Waters
CEO, Ufi VocTech Trust