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Carolyn Fairbairn, Director General of the CBI, talked about the future of education in the UK, in the introduction to Issue 4 of our Research Magazine

Over the last three years, Brexit has overshadowed other significant challenges. Challenges more deeply rooted in our society and the world of work.

Today, our employers, customers and competitors are as likely to be based in the next continent as the next town. Many of us can expect to spend as much as two decades longer in work than our parents did because of demographic change. And then there’s technology.

We hear a lot about automation, machine learning and AI. But many people, and companies, still haven’t yet realised the depth and pace of the change. Every job will be – is being – affected by automation in one way or another. And for many, that means moving to higher-skilled jobs.

We will only meet the challenges posed by these significant trends through lifelong learning. Because only education can prepare us for a world that’s more dynamic, more global, more competitive, and more demanding of human skills such as problem solving and creative thinking.

These are the kind of higher-level skills that only a college or university can teach and lead the way on. Manchester, for example, was one of the first two business schools in the UK offering MBA degrees – a leader in its field.

To meet the needs of a flexible modern economy, the education system itself must become more agile. We need people willing to go on learning, and prepared to return to education, throughout their careers.

Often, companies succeed because they evolve through education. They work with colleges to anticipate their future skills needs, and together design courses to meet them. But our colleges have been underestimated as a resource, historically underfunded and politically neglected. And at the CBI, we’re starting to ask whether they could have a new role to play.

We’ve asked the government to consider giving people an entitlement to an extra qualification between an A-Level and a university degree – an apprenticeship, or technical course based at a college. It could be a year when different backgrounds come together and learn skills they might not otherwise. It could be a profound shift in favour of a higher-skilled economy. 

And when it comes to universities, what if they too could offer the same kind of flexible service as many of our colleges? What if it could become possible, later in life, to return to university to study for a period much shorter than three years?

The government should take the idea of flexible university courses seriously, along with the funding mechanisms to support them – and that means ending talk of cutting tuition fees too. After all, our university sector is one area where the UK punches far above its weight. Not only do they educate people to the highest levels, they are also some of our biggest regional employers and peerless incubators of new businesses. And they are vital if we are to reach the government’s 3% R&D target. They are a precious national asset that should be protected and nurtured.

In a post-Brexit world, education will be a home-grown source of strength. By working together with business, the sector must be one of the biggest competitive advantages the UK has.

Read Issue 4 of the Research Magazine.