Referendum fallout must provide boost for local skill

 
Mon 22 Sep 2014

The law of unintended consequences will play an enormous part in the aftermath of last week’s Scottish referendum result.  The impact is already being widely felt at all levels of the major political parties and the Labour Party conference in Manchester, from where this is being written, is awash with theory and debate on precisely this conundrum.

A fascinating fringe meeting hosted by the Policy Exchange think tank discussed the best ways to create greater demand-led foci in the skills sector – which in English means getting business to identify clearly what it needs from education.  Even this apparently technocratic issue resonates with tartan fallout.

Jonathan Simons is Head of the Education Unit at Policy Exchange and he has identified what he describes as a real tension between spatial and sectoral policy.  In essence what he said goes like this.  Individuals who learn skills up to Level 3 (A Levels and equivalent) tend to train, become employed and continue to live in the area where they grew up – hence the provision of those skills requires the right spatial approach.  Those who are educated to Level 4 (first year of a degree course) and above, particularly if they went to a Russell Group University, migrate to where the work they want is, and that generally means London.  Research shows that disturbingly, Manchester and Cambridge are the only areas in the entire country where the drain of talent to the capital is effectively resisted.

This is a significant problem.  There is already a huge economic imbalance between London and the rest of the UK.  The unusual coexistence in the capital of both the financial markets and the governmental centre makes London an enormous magnet for people and money.  Cities and regions need a thought-out strategy to oppose this brain drain, and a new regional agenda born from reaction to the Scottish vote could be the opportunity to make it really effective.

At Milton Keynes College we already have a plan in place.  We’ve identified the five main local growth sectors – logistics, professional services, (eg banking, accountancy, law and management consultancy), health and care professions, customer services and digital industries.  If we can service these five smart specialisms as we call them by providing the right people with the right skills we can produce some magnetism of our own and reverse the London drain effect.  By way of example, Milton Keynes is the fourth most clustered digital economy in the UK (according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research).  That is to say we have a higher concentration of digital businesses in the city than all but three other places in the country.  If we want those people and those business to stay and to generate wealth and create jobs we have to provide them with good reason in terms of the education and related support available.

The referendum has provided a massive opportunity for regions, cities and areas to look at themselves to see what they can do to support their own smart specialisms.  Greater political powers, and specifically money-raising powers, are coming their way.  How well these are used will determine which areas of the UK rise and fall in this brave new regionalised world.  Business needs to play a big part in this.  Companies and industries need to think very hard about the people they want and the training they require.  Education has taken on board the argument that it has been too supply side led in the past.  We stand ready to listen to what employers want.  They need to take a full part in the conversation.  A consensus is evolving around the need for this conversation and neither side can afford to be passive anymore.
London be warned, the regional fight back has begun.

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