Utilitarianism and skills

The FT published an interesting article yesterday on the current financial troubles facing universities by both tuition fee freezes and, more recently, the changes enforced by the pandemic.

The article ended with paraphrased comments from Professor Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor of Portsmouth university:

The bigger danger to universities was a “utilitarian” government view that they existed only to train workers in “skills the government decides are needed”. “Our broader role in producing well-rounded graduates . . . is being lost,” he said.


First, Is a utilitarian view a bad thing for a government to take on mass education? 

Utilitarianism: the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority. The doctrine that an action is right in so far as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct.

Oxford Languages

Second, how are the government deciding on the skills needed?

“The drive to place employers at the heart of the skills system comes as the Prime Minister launches a new Build Back Better Business Council. The new group will see business leaders work directly with government to fuel the Covid-19 economic recovery.”

Pioneering reforms to boost skills and jobs, Gov.UK

After years of government-supported rapid expansion, in part at the expense of cash-starved further education colleges, the university sector faces genuine challenges. According to the Office for National Statistics, university student numbers have almost doubled since 1992. Graduate numbers are now over 50%; informed by the Augar review, the government has moved its attention to the other 50%. 

Forward-looking universities are working with the government to deliver new qualification such as degree apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications. Both parties are working with businesses to address the genuine global, national, and regional skills gaps. Students, too, are looking for the promise of a more economically secure future and are voting with their feet towards attractive courses, reputable universities, and the perceived boost to career opportunities.

The solutions are far from perfect and often seem like two steps forward one step back, but they are transparent in their direction of travel and open to universities involvement in helping write how we get there. What is included in courses to make students well-rounded is still in the control of those delivering them and businesses are still keen on students that can think, solve problems, and be agile. Universities need to decide if they want to be small elite institutions that service a minority or mass centres of learning that prepare students for a better future.

The tricky thing about a free market in higher education is that it is democratic; the supply and demand have to respond to each other.   

Employer involvement in course design

Employability must be a core focus for all higher education. With 8% of employers not able to fill posts due to a lack of applicants with the right skills and 13% of employers having similar issues with a lack of skills in current employees, workplaces need more skilled individuals. The sizeable gaps in the job market represent lost productivity for those companies, lost taxes that could help the poorest in society, and a large number of individuals that could have more profitable and rewarding jobs if they only had the right skills.

These skills gaps come alongside record levels of HE participation, with more than 50% of the population gaining a degree by 30. The Government has labelled this problem the skills mismatch, and it is getting larger. Universities are responsible for addressing the mismatch by ensuring that graduates leave their courses with skills that can get them jobs.

One step towards reducing the skills mismatch involves employers in the design and delivery of university courses. Initiating and developing these relationships can be time intimidating and consuming for academics that have not developed skills in this kind of relationship building. Here I have suggested five steps to building solid collaboration with employers in a gradual phased approach. Any such effort aims to reach step five, at which multiple employers help to design a course to fill their skills needs and are happy to add their brand to marketing materials and employ graduates that the courses produce.

Five steps of employer involvement:

  1. Guest lectures
  2. Student site visits
  3. Employer developed assessments
  4. Student Placements
  5. Co-designed courses

Building Back Better: the UK Government replaces it’s industrial strategy

On the 3rd March, the UK Government published a policy paper titled Build Back Better: our plan for growth alongside the new budget. This plan replaces the previous 2017 Industrial Strategy with a focus on post-pandemic recovery. The Government aims to use the investment to support a move away from an economy geographically weighted towards London and the South East of England and encourage growth across the UK.

These remarkable vaccines are giving us a realistic way forwards to restart our businesses and our lives. As we do so, we must grasp the historic opportunity before us: to learn the lessons of this awful pandemic and build back better, levelling up across our United Kingdom and fixing the problems that have held back too many people for too long.

Boris Johnson – Prime Minister

The plan covers six core areas for growth:

  1. Infrastructure
  2. SKills
  3. Innovation
  4. Levelling up the whole of the UK
  5. Support the transition to Net Zero
  6. Support our vision for Global Britain

The skills plan includes the Lifetime Skills Guarantee to narrow the skills gap in technical and adult basic skills, including digital fluency, and a continued rollout of apprenticeships. The OECD has suggested that the UK could improve productivity by 5% by reducing its skills mismatch to levels similar to other high performing economies.

There has been a recognition of the technical skills shortages, with only 4% of young people choosing a technical qualification after leaving school compared to 33% selecting to study a degree. Basic skills are a problem for many adults, with over a quarter of workers having low literacy or numeracy skills. The Government aims to invest heavily in the Further Education sector and make technical education a genuine alternative to University.

The best way to improve people’s life chances is to give them the skills to succeed. The UK has a strong foundation of advanced skills, but lags behind international comparators on technical and basic adult skills. The Government is transforming Further Education, encouraging lifelong learning through the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, and building an apprenticeships revolution.

Rishi Sunak – Chancellor of the Exchequer

Apprenticeships play a large part in the skills plan. There is a commitment to expand traineeships and improve the progression rate to apprenticeships, incentives for new apprenticeship hires, steps to improve the quality of provision, and improvements to employers’ apprenticeship system.

Technical education is being expanded by increasing the number of T-levels as an alternative to A-levels and higher technical qualifications as an alternative to university degrees. Institutes of Technology will be rolled out in every region of the country to expand the twelve existing pilot institutions. 

For those already in work, funding is provided to study level 3 qualifications for those that do not yet have one. Skills Bootcamps have been launched to provide flexible and bite-sized introductions to employer-led skills. The Lifelong Loan entitlement is mentioned, but it will not be available until 2025. The loan promises students the ability to study qualifications by module and flexibly received funding to mirror their study choices.  

The policy paper has nothing new around the skills strategy, but it represents recommitments alongside the new budget. The Government’s focus is clearly on matching education and training provision to the economy’s skills needs. Many people will be disappointed that the Industrial Strategy will not be updated, and the university sector is still waiting for details on the Lifelong loan details. It is now the Government’s chance to deliver on the commitments.

Linkedin Learning’s Workplace Learning Report 2021

Linkedin released their 5th annual Workplace Learning Report today. The findings are collected from Linkedin’s learning and development survey, completed by over 5,000 professionals across 27 countries.

65% of L&D pros have a seat at the exec table, up from 24% last year. This increase is mostly due to the need’s for remote working during the pandemic. 57% of L&D professionals say learning & development as moved from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘need to have’.

The focus of Learning and Development in companies in 2021 is upskilling and reskilling, with 59% of companies saying this is their priority. The need for new skills can be partly attributed to the digitalisation of many roles. According to the World Economic Forum, 85 million jobs will be displaced, and 97 million new jobs will be created globally by 2025 due to computing playing a larger part in many businesses. The pandemic has accelerated many companies plans for digitisation and the training staff to take advantage of the new technologies. Leadership and management (53%), Virtual onboarding (33%), and Diversity and inclusion (33%) are the other most common priorities. The two most essential skills are resilience and digital fluency to address the pace of change. 

The skills gap created by increase technology in the workplace has lead companies to focus more on internal mobility, giving employees extra motivation to engage in learning and development. 51% of UK companies now say that internal mobility is more important now that pre-pandemic. To support internal employee progression, 39% of L%D professionals are currently identifying skills gaps in their organisation, and 33% are developing tools to help develop programmes targeted at upward or adjacent moves of employees within the company. The report suggests that employees at companies with high internal mobility stay almost twice as long; an average of 2.9 years for low internal mobility companies and 5. years where internal mobility is high. 

Community is becoming a crucial part of learning programmes. At Linkedin learning’s internal programmes, learners who used the platform’s social features watched an average of 30 times more content. This mirrored in the feelings of Learning and Development professionals in the survey. 84% said that learning is more engaging when done with other people, 94% said that it is more successful, and 95% said it helps create a sense of belonging. 

Linkedin Learnings own programmes have seen a 58% increase in users in the last year to 25 million global users; each user is watching on average twice the number of hours. Generation Z, born between 1995-2010, are the top uses of Linkedin Learning, growing 2.5 times the number of users in this bracket, and they are watching 50% more hours.

The five most popular Linkedin Learning courses for learning and development professionals:

  1. Instructional Design Essentials: Models of ID by Joe Pulichino
  2. Articulate Storyline Essential Training by Daniel Brigham
  3. Instructional Design: Storyboarding by Daniel Brigham
  4. Converting Face-to-Face Training into Digital Learning by Daniel Brigham
  5. Measuring Learning Effectiveness by Jeff Toister

Problem-based learning: the solution to the skills gap?

In the 2019 QS Global skills gap report, the top five skills that employers identified as a missing in most graduates were:

  1. problem-solving
  2. communication
  3. teamwork
  4. data skills
  5. resilience.

Research in Canada suggests that undergraduate students increase their problem-solving skills in year one but then see no increase in their course’s second and third years. University lecturers can introduce active learning methodologies such as problem-based learning to narrow this skills gap and better prepare graduates for the workplace. 

Problem-based learning is a student-centred approach to learning and teaching. Barrows and Tamblyn introduced the method in the 1960s to teach students at the medical school at McMaster University. Students use trigger material to identify an open-ended problem that they then attempt to solve. The process teaches students to take responsibility for their learning, acquire knowledge independently, communicate, work in a team, problem-solve, and present information. 

In problem-based learning (PBL) students use “triggers” from the problem case or scenario to define their own learning objectives. Subsequently they do independent, self directed study before returning to the group to discuss and refine their acquired knowledge. Thus, PBL is not about problem solving per se, but rather it uses appropriate problems to increase knowledge and understanding.

British Medical Journal (BMJ)

The students are required to determine their own goals to the presented scenarios or problems through group discussions. Once they have defined the problem, they map out what they know already that will help solve the problem and attempt to determine what else they need to find out. Students then identify how and where they can find this information through research articles, journals, web materials, textbooks and set off individually to collect it. The group then comes to bask together to organise their research, produce a solution to the problem, and then present it.

The teamwork element is key to the methodology. Students work in groups of 8 to 15 to collect each individuals knowledge and ideas, differing perspectives, perceptions, and come up with multiple solutions to the problem. Discussions, both online and face to face are essential, and collaborative research methods are crucial. 

Introducing a new teaching method is challenging for both the lecturer and the student, especially when shifting from a tutor-led to a student-led way of working. Students are comfortable with their current role in the classroom and lecture hall and have developed the skills supporting the traditional delivery methods. The resources and space required for collaborative learning and the access to research materials can also stress the university infrastructure. A common issue for students when introduced to problem-based learning is information overload. Students need help to identify the boundaries of their research, or they keep going. Sweller and Cooper in 1985 suggested that students should first learn through worked examples and then gradually be introduced to problem-based learning with a gradual ‘fading’ of support given by the academic.

The problem-based learning process

Problem-based learning is a clearly defined method with a set process. 

The Maastricht seven-jump process:

  1. Clarify terms
  2. define problems(s)
  3. Brainstorming
  4. structuring and hypothesis
  5. Learning objectives
  6. Independent study
  7. Synthesis

Let me know on Twitter if you have tried or are going to try problem-based learning.

What is the skills gap?

The skills gap refers to the gap between the skills employers need and the skills individuals have. This gap is growing due to the increasing amount of technology used in the workplace requiring new skills that employees need to learn. The gap is growing as employees, both future and present, are either not learning the skills quickly enough or are learning the wrong skills altogether.

There are four main stakeholders, the businesses that employ people, individuals in or entering the workforce, education providers that prepare people for the work, and governments that can provide an efficient environment for the other three stakeholders to operate effectively.

Work keeps at bay three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.


As an educator, my main focus is on the individuals in or preparing for the workforce. Work is extremely important, most of us find meaning in the work we do, the majority of the socialising and connections to other people is through our jobs, and they allow us to develop mastery. Gaining the right skills to get a good job also provides financial rewards that offer us freedom and independence.

All four stakeholders aim to narrow this gap and provide bridges between people and jobs. The UK Government has recognised that the increase in higher education participation rates to over 50% of the population has not narrowed this gap. They have taken bold steps to address this issue with the apprenticeship levy, postgraduate loans, and the recent technical qualifications. Many university leaders following the Augar report are pushing for lifelong learning credits or similar to support the reskilling in additional to the other changes.

Further increasing participation in higher education is not enough as there needs to be an effort to match the skills required with the ones being taught. There are significant moves from the government towards addressing this issue so it now the turn of educators to take the raw materials we are given and work with employers and students to build the bridges to connect the two.