As we mark the close of another busy year, I’d like to extend my gratitude to the entire VocTech community - including our strategic partners, stakeholders, and the organisations we support. Slowly and steadily, our collaborative endeavours are paving the way for a thriving economy and society, where everyone benefits from the acquisition of new skills, and no one is left behind.
Ufi are part of a very large and complex skills system, working to get adults learning for the benefit of everyone – individuals, employers, providers and society.
That is why the people we work with are so important - no technology operates in a vacuum and tech alone is not going to solve the interwoven challenges that adult learners face, especially those furthest from learning. But tech can help to unravel and overcome some of the more complicated problems, especially when that tech supports the human.
But tech can help to unravel and overcome some of the more complicated problems, especially when that tech supports the human.
It’s hard to believe that nearly four years have passed since the onset of the pandemic; a period that reshaped not only the way we work but the very fabric of our lives. Since 2020, artificial intelligence has become ever more prevalent and has entered the consciousness of the wider public – it is only one year since Chat GPT was released into the wild (and I promise none of this year’s Christmas message was AI generated!), but the wider conversation about AI and the ways it will impact every job and every life can be seen in all corners of the online and offline world.
AI is a tool, just like every other technology – but it is a powerful one, and one that many are rightly cautious of. The immediate benefits of an intelligent helper (the AI elf?!) are obvious - people are using AI-generated professional headshots on their LinkedIn profiles, teachers are harnessing generative AI for lesson planning and HR professionals now routinely use it to screen job applications. But what of the deeper implications and longer-term impacts?
A particular challenge that we all now face is how we deploy AI thoughtfully, equitably, and responsibly, ensuring it becomes a force for positive change without reinforcing existing inequalities. This topic served as the foundation of our jointly published paper with The Association of Employment and Learning providers (AELP) titled: 'Future-Ready Vocational Education: Harnessing Technology for Success’ released in June. Our research provided insight into the barriers and opportunities facing training providers, highlighting the importance of supporting staff with the CPD offer they need to leverage AI ethically and effectively.
AI is not the only tool. But it is game changing – we just need to make sure we end up with a game that allows everyone to play.
The impact of VocTech – adult learning at scale
In April we celebrated a significant milestone at Ufi, with the release of an independent evaluation of our grant funding programmes from 2015 to 2019. The research, interviews and case studies within the report affirm our substantial progress towards the goals we outlined for our grant funding, highlighting the major strides we’ve made to catalyse change and finding that our funding and support is reshaping how adults access learning at scale.
Between 2015 and 2019, Ufi positively impacted 2.6 million adults, breaking down barriers for learners underserved by mainstream provision and seeing great progress in sectors and or workplaces traditionally less inclined towards vocational learning technology. Our approach to funding was found to instigate transformative change within the organisations we collaborate with and the broader sector, leaving a lasting imprint on the organisations we support, extending beyond the projects themselves.
In addition to the positive evaluation report, 2023 saw many reasons to celebrate, as organisations we have supported reached significant milestones:
- Half a million unpaid careers have been reached by Mobilise to support them to develop their knowledge and skills.
- Over 13 million digital badges have been awarded through iDEA, helping people to develop digital, enterprise and employability skills for free.
- Nearly 700 employers are providing virtual work experience with Springpod, helping more than 500,000 young adults gain experience with top employers.
- 65% of Further Education colleges across the UK are using the CENTURY AI platform to provide personalised learning to help students with Maths & English GCSE re-sits.
The team also celebrated at the Learning Technologies Awards alongside six Ufi-supported finalists. This year’s competition drew more than 400 entries from 30 different countries, which both highlights the importance of tech in learning and also makes it a stiff competition! I’m really pleased to report that Learnerbly secured an award in the category of 'Learning Technologies Organisation of the Year,' and Bristol Braille for 'Most Innovative New Learning Technologies Product (UK).'
Of course, I can’t look back over the year without mentioning the Week of VocTech. Focused on inspiring action to transform the UK skills sector and ‘get adults learning’ it was, as always, a welcome opportunity to bring the sector together to celebrate, explore, challenge and inspire. The week saw a huge range of online events, workshops, and webinars (many available to watch-again), and opportunities to come together in person, including the VocTech Showcase.
I love the VocTech Showcase – it is an opportunity to meet the people behind the innovation and determination that drives the sector forward, to explore even bolder ways of collaborating to achieve positive change and to see the sparks of new introductions, new partnerships and the coming together of people who have one thing in common – a belief in the positive power of technology.
Developing new ideas to transform how people gain skills for work
I love welcoming a new project cohort into the Ufi family, and this year saw the new VocTech Activate cohort of projects get underway, each of them addressing prevalent and emerging skills challenges encountered by various industry sectors across the UK and benefiting a diverse array of learner groups. These skills challenges include the barriers neurodivergent adults face in gaining manufacturing qualifications, the under-representation of learners from disadvantaged groups in the tech sector, and the lack of trained workers needed to help the UK meet its net zero ambitions.
This new cohort of projects all focus on enhancing opportunities for learner groups who too often lack opportunities and support from conventional learning programmes and includes:
- AI Translate from Hull College: helping adult ESOL learners to overcome language barriers when accessing vocational skills training in the UK.
- Green Vocational Training from Plan and Site Services Limited: giving people in prison access to Level 3 and 4 energy assessment qualifications.
- Communication Enhancement from Debate Mate: testing the hypothesis that AI can identify communication skills gaps and signpost learners to targeted content to improve those skills.
Our VocTech Activate grant fund will open again on the 2nd January 2024, with pre-application workshops available to book now. If you or your organisation has new ideas for how technology can get adults learning, please do take a look – the workshops will give you a really clear idea as to whether this grant funding is right for you and your organisation.
Investing in vocational technology
This has also been a busy year for Ufi Ventures, with a growing portfolio including investment in an additional four early-stage businesses. These companies join our diverse investment portfolio of 16 businesses, each using vocational technology to help adults thrive in work.
- Metaverse Learning: Utilises virtual reality and augmented reality for immersive online training experiences, bringing learning to life.
- AutonoMe: Empowers individuals with learning disabilities and autism through a mobile-based program, combining human support with assistive technology for independent living and employment skills.
- MyPocketSkill: Addresses the decline in opportunities for young adults, helping them earn money, set savings goals, and enhance employability.
- Slinger: Enhances hospitality recruitment, assisting individuals in finding quality work and advancing their careers in the industry.
At a time when global investment activity has seen a steep decline, I am really pleased that we have been able to continue to invest in the development of the most promising new start-ups, recognising the potential of innovative and exciting ideas in the adult learning world and recognising the power of vocational skills.
The year began with the publication of ‘The Jobs Frontier 2023’ report, a collaborative effort with Tyton Partners that explores investment opportunities in the Future of Workforce Development and draws on our quarterly published reports on VocTech market activity.
We also announced our alliance with the GoodTech Ventures Community and Accelerator; an initiative that forms part of our ongoing strategic partnership with Catch22. This exciting new collaboration aims to harness the power and energy of tech ventures to drive reform in public services. We look forward to welcoming up to 30 new ventures in 2024.
Impact through collaboration
We continue to recognise the importance of the link between technology and place, and we were pleased to facilitate impactful discussions in Scotland and Northern Ireland on adult skills and the unique barriers faced by learners in these regions. We look forward to continuing this work into 2024 as part of our VocTech Challenge, discussed below.
Working in partnership is extremely important for Ufi. We know we won’t achieve the change we want to see alone, and also understand that we work from a unique position, able to bring together a range of organisations each holding a different piece of the puzzle.
It was good to introduce two new strategic partnerships in 2023, the most recent of which was announced last month. Our partnership with NCFE focuses on leveraging technology to drive reform in the assessment of vocational training and skills in line with the evolving needs of the UK economy. The partnership includes co-funding the next round of the NCFE Assessment Innovation Fund, which will launch in the Spring.
Back at the beginning of the year, we announced our partnership with Learning and Work Institute centred on ‘Skills for an Economy in Transition’ as part of our VocTech Challenge. Together, we are working to address inequalities in adult learning, focusing on upskilling, reskilling, and accessibility for diverse learner groups; advocating for technology's role in fostering equitable growth.
It is no longer a question of whether technology should be part of adult learning but rather how
As reported in this year’ Adult Participation in Learning Survey, 95 per cent of UK adults use technology in their formal and independent learning. The benefits of using learning technology are also widely reported with 97 per cent experiencing benefits to learning with digital technology, including benefits that enable learning and those that aid or enhance it. But while technology may be engrained with learning, and we have certainly seen a shift in awareness of the role for, and potential of, digital learning technologies in adult skills, there remain barriers preventing people from getting the most from it.
Our belief in the power of technology to improve skills for work and deliver better outcomes for all remains unchanged...
Our belief in the power of technology to improve skills for work and deliver better outcomes for all remains unchanged, but the survey data highlights that there is still much work to be done. As a sector it is crucial that we ensure learners have the opportunity and confidence to use the technology we know can make such a difference to people’s lives.
Demonstrating how the UK can use technology to get adults learning, and supporting the skills system to integrate it effectively, will continue as our focus into 2024 and beyond.
Skills for an economy in transition
We all now recognise that economic growth comes, at least in part, from a better skilled workforce, but let’s not forget that this must include every section of the workforce. Ensuring vocational technology addresses issues of participation, access, and opportunity is crucial for developing skills of the quality and quantity the UK needs. This means giving everyone the opportunity to develop skills for work, now and throughout their lives.
With this context in mind, we published our VocTech Challenge Green Paper in April of this year, sparking debate and raising crucial questions around the most significant challenges facing adult vocational education. Our subsequent White Paper in June presented the findings and outlined our next phase of commitments.
We are proud that the VocTech Challenge: Skills for an Economy in Transition has developed into a bold and ambitious programme of work which we hope will help tackle one of the UK's most pressing challenges: creating a better skilled workforce and making sure that everyone has the chance to develop skills throughout their lives. Our £6 million VocTech Challenge programme – uniting our partnerships, grant funding, venture investment, and advocacy - is our commitment to realising this.
The first strand of our challenge work is the ‘VocTech Future of Skills Award’ and I was pleased to announce the winning entries last month. Designed to encourage debate around bold and exciting ideas for what the future of the UK skills system could look like, participants were tasked with answering just one question: "If you could make one change to the skills system to encourage more adult learning, what would it be?" The winning ideas were:
- Clear Pathways from Gill Scott: Advocating for place-based learning with employers, fostering long-term collaboration for flexible vocational education.
- cryptoSKILL from Belfast Met: Proposing a universal value for micro-credentials using blockchain, challenging traditional skill valuation, and encouraging flexible learning.
- Assistiv from Assistiv CIC: Leveraging technology to empower those with learning disabilities for seamless integration into employment processes.
We will be looking at each of these ideas in more detail in the New Year, exploring them with the winners and expanding on the conversation about how we can all catalyse positive change.
An agile, responsive, and inclusive skills system where no one is left behind
As we look to the future our focus is set on catalysing systemic change to facilitate effective adult learning. With a possible General Election on the horizon and an economy in flux, it’s clear that further uncertainty lies ahead for 2024 and beyond.
But regardless of the political landscape we remain dedicated to leading the debate on systemic change, working tirelessly to shape a better-skilled workforce that is not only adaptive but thrives in the face of evolving economic landscapes. While our current skills system - with its complexities, rigidity, and fragmentation - presents a formidable challenge, we are confident in our belief that technology holds the key to developing a more agile, responsive, and inclusive system.
As we embark on the challenges and opportunities of the upcoming year, let’s remember that we collectively have the ideas, skills, and technology to get adults learning and make lasting change.
With this I wish you an enjoyable Christmas break and a year ahead filled with shared accomplishments and growth.
CEO, Ufi VocTech Trust