How can digital technology help remove multifaceted systemic skills barriers for learners?

Reflections from our discovery workshops

The following notes are taken from our discovery workshops held at the beginning of March as part of our VocTech Challenge: Skills for an economy in transition.

You can read a summary here.


Our workshops on the 1st and 2nd March focused on the role of digital technology in developing a more agile, responsive skills system. In this blog, we share how systemic barriers are baking in disadvantage for groups of adult learners. Themes covered in our discussions included: quality work and skills shortages; the challenges for highly skilled workers who are not highly qualified; Level 3 as a pivot qualification for access to quality work; digital technology, micro-credentials, and non-linear learning; lived experience as a job and client skill; provider size; and using digital technology to support collaborative innovation in qualification and assessment design.

System within system skills barriers

Participants discussed how the rapid change occurring in the skills system is creating new forms of skills barriers and traps through the skills system itself.  There are well known patterns of exclusion from qualifications and jobs from a lack of foundational Level 2 English and Maths. However, contributors talked of skills shortages being the result of a range of different system barriers beyond the number of workers looking for work. These included whether jobs are quality work, the challenges for highly skilled workers who have not taken formal qualifications; barriers to accessing level 3, the traps of the Universal Credit system for workers who want to reskill or upskill.

Quality work: Workshop attendees suggested that skills shortages are often jobs which workers don’t want to do, and our skills system needs to better recognise and address whether jobs provide quality work and decent pay. These can be jobs which are skilled but hard to fill, for example nursing, with more focus needed on job quality in roles which are typically hard, long hours and/or low paid.

Highly skilled but not highly qualified workers: Although younger workers are increasingly qualified, there are large numbers of mid and older workers who are in highly skilled roles, but who do not hold formal qualifications. These can be workers who left school with few qualifications but who have extensive work experience in skilled jobs. In addition, migrant workers may be qualified in their home country, but lack paper qualifications, or their qualifications are not recognised in the four nations of the UK. Contributors also reported that these groups don’t necessarily want to return to academic study to gain qualifications. However, these groups face significant barriers if they seek to reskill or upskill through formal qualifications. Participants described that learners are faced with the choice of repeating learning to achieve a paper qualification with the time and finance this requires. Or they can enter a job at the bottom of the skills profile in line with their paper qualifications, but well below their skill proficiency, with intendent wage reductions and challenges to self-esteem. In addition, some qualifications such as apprenticeships which could produce the required qualification are not available to work-experienced learners because of the requirement of demonstrating new skills acquisition. These barriers have personal costs to the learner, but also carry significant social costs to the economy in delays to entry to skilled work and pay, as well as costs to the education system in repeating learning. Contributors described European projects which seek to assess worker skills and gaps against a country’s occupational criteria, align with training and reassessment to provide a recognised national qualification to give evidence of competency to employers.

Level 3 as a pivot qualification for access to quality jobs: Contributors described Level 3 qualifications increasingly being the pivot between a workers’ ability or not to enter and progress within a quality job, and that the proportion of the population qualified to Level 3 remain a key Local Authority indicator. Although the qualification system has been reformed to increase access to Level 3 qualifications, these pathways come with restrictions which can create significant barriers for adult learners. Participants suggested individual qualifications and the funding attached to them need to be seen as a system within the skills system to ensure barriers are not inadvertently created:

Study time for a Level 3: For example, at Level 3 these were suggested to be: the physical time it takes to achieve a Level 3 qualification; learners may be in multiple jobs, have caring or childcare responsibilities, and learners can’t afford to step out of work, or fund care to access the qualification.

Lack of maintenance funding: Financial barriers exist from very little maintenance support below Level 4, creating challenges for adult learners who may be working multiple jobs and have significant dependent responsibilities. The cost-of-living crisis creates additional pressures for learners where there is no maintenance element to finance. Above Level 3 the Higher Education maintenance loan system supports some living costs. In addition, the funding system will only allow shortage occupation level 3 funding, and there are restrictions which affect reskilling including whether an adult already holds a qualification at that level.

Universal credit learning restrictions: participants described a “chasm between the DWP and DfE” in joined up pathway thinking to support reskilling and upskilling at higher qualification levels beyond entry level short courses. Adults claiming Universal Credit face restrictions on the length of course over 12 weeks that can be accessed without affecting benefits. Participants felt these barriers were well known, and counter-intuitive given the well-known link between educational qualifications and a range of positive social indicators. This lacked priorities in government, despite the political push to increase the numbers of adults in work.

Using digital technology to address skills system barriers: Digital technology was successfully addressing some forms of systems barriers.

Micro-credentials: Participants described the rise in interest in micro-credentials as part of the Lifelong Learning through stacked rather than linear learning approaches. These were suggested to have advantages to the employer as well as the learner in allowing learning to mirror the skills needed for work, rather than skills being taught in a sequential, fixed pathway dependent on the providers interpretation of the curriculum. This also allows agency on the part of the learner in designing their curriculum. Micro-credentials are typically delivered through a digital model, meaning learners have flexibility to learn when suits them, and around caring or child-care commitments, and removes geographic and transport barriers to access for example in careers projects for care experienced adults. However, there were concerns that learning could follow an employer directive model, with learners not achieving whole qualifications that may be needed in the future for job progression creating inadvertent traps in the system. Although participants shared the increasing interest in electronic credentials for portability, there was significant concern that the ethical and practical concerns of who would hold such data, the format of data over time, what would happen if private providers were taken over, or went bust, and how systems would be guaranteed across the educational and working life of adults which could be over 60 years long.

Lived experience as a job and client support skill: Digital technology approaches to learning for marginalised groups were suggested to create dual track processes of supporting learners achieve work, but also to support employers to recruit more representative workforces which better reflected client lived experiences and needs. Providers expanded on the changing nature of skills described, describing that the lived experience of marginalised groups such as care experienced workers, or those that have spent time in the criminal justice system can better support client needs. People described that lived experience created unique worker skill sets within groups traditionally consider far from employment. These skill sets meant that strong partnerships could be formed between digital learning approaches, learner groups, and employers such as the NHS. Digital meant that access was supported for groups such as Young Offender Institutes, which historically have poor options in education. Importantly, providers were often small and highly connected to their learner groups meaning support was personalised for employers as well as providers. People suggested this model could be scalable and transferable to other sectors and worker groups. But the capacity of different sizes of employers to support diverse groups of learners needs better recognition and funding if learners are to be supported once in work; in large employers HR departments would organise and support access to workforce training to support diverse learners, but in smaller and medium employers these structures often don’t exist.

System barriers from provider size

Despite the positives shared about digital technology innovation in removing barriers, employer and provider size was highlighted by many participants as a systemic barrier for the greater use of technology. The differing capacity and resources available to utilise technology of small and large providers leads to different levels of technological application in learning design and learning delivery. The short-term nature of funding, identified in Discovery Blog 2 as a barrier to developing learner approaches was also highlighted as a system issue for providers because of the large amounts of leadership time that was required to keep the organisation running as a going concern through repeated funding applications, meaning less time could be allocated to learning design. Innovative approaches require time, risk, and learning through mistakes, which small providers often don’t have the financial resources to achieve.

Digital technology supporting collaborative approaches to qualification and assessment design:

The vocational qualification system is about to enter another period of rapid change from qualification reform, and ongoing reviews, for example at Level 2. This system level change is currently managed college by college and provider by provider, creating duplication and missed innovation opportunities. Participants spoke of the need for the system to foster greater collaborative opportunities to release capacity and support innovation. Scotland was identified as a possible model. First, there will be a significant need for all colleges and providers to produce new schemes of work to meet revised vocational qualification frameworks in England. Participants highlighted that this level of systems change should provide an opportunity to use technology to support collaborative qualification and assessment learning design, for example building on the work of Jisc to support FE colleges and providers to work collaboratively, share best practice and reduce duplication in designing schemes of work for new qualifications.

Secondly, we need to think of education provider jobs in terms of what parts of the qualification system could be routinely supported by technology, for example aspects of education case management, which would free up more time for high imagination, creative problem solving, and human interactions. This was felt to be particularly important in thinking how digital technology might support a different approach to the management of learning, where we know learners value face to face interactions which involve significant time.  Developing learning approaches to meet learner needs requires practitioners to have enough time to think creatively about learning approaches, not to be bogged down in working in silos replicating learning design work happening across a country or region.

VocTech Challenge: Skills for an economy in transition

Explore the VocTech Challenge.