Article: Wales and the challenges of a changing workplace

This article first appeared in the 30 May edition of the Western Mail

Professor Julie Lydon, OBE
Chair of Universities Wales and Vice Chancellor of the University of South Wales

Every strong, sustainable economy has its foundations in the education and skills of its population. With the current pace of technological advancement and the changes taking place in workplaces across the world, this is perhaps more important than ever before. As we enter what has been described as a fourth industrial revolution, with experts predicting a near unprecedented level of automation in the coming decades, many have considered what these changes mean for individuals and businesses, and what skills will be needed to make the most of the opportunities of the future.

Much of the discussion around automation and technological change has focused on the risks that these changes pose to jobs. Frequent headlines suggest that a third of jobs across the world could be lost. While most accept that automation does risk displacing jobs in Wales and the UK, there is also a recognition that, in the past, automation has brought with it increased productivity and where jobs are displaced, new ones are also created.

Recent studies estimate that the number of jobs created in the UK by automation will balance out the jobs lost. However, the loss of jobs, even when they are replaced, still has a social and cultural impact on the people who do those jobs and the communities where those jobs are based. And, as has been the case with previous industrial revolutions, the creation of new jobs might not be in the same place as the jobs that are lost, and might not even be in Wales.

In preparing for technological and economic change, research and innovation (R&I) and skills are two central pillars of any government’s approach. Recently Universities Wales published a report – Solving Future Skills Challenges in Wales – which explores what skills Wales will need and what role universities will need to play to ensure that Wales is well-placed to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the future.

Much of the analysis of the impact of automation on the UK and beyond finds that higher level skills are essential in minimising the risks of automation. In Wales, we face some particular challenges on higher level skills. Our population is, on the whole, older than the UK average and less well-qualified. In the 2011 census, in Wales 26.5% of the usual resident population aged 16-64 had a degree compared to 28.7% of those in England. Our productivity continues to be one of the lowest in the UK, which means that providing the opportunity for people of all ages and background to access higher education is even more important in Wales than it is elsewhere in the UK.

But just as Wales faces unique challenges, we are in some ways also a step ahead. The way higher education students in Wales are supported financially has changed recently in Wales with part-time and postgraduate students being given equivalent levels of support for living costs as those who are studying full-time undergraduate courses. These reforms are already helping improve access to flexible learning, and early figures suggest a 35% increase in those choosing to study part-time in Wales. In the face of uncertainty in higher education in other parts of the UK, the Diamond Review gives us a clear way forward in Wales and one which will contribute to us meeting Wales’ future skills needs.

As well as delivering the Diamond package there are other things that government, providers and employers can do to prepare for the challenges of the future. Across the UK we have seen a sharp increase in demand from employers and individuals for degree apprenticeships. Tens of thousands of people across the UK are already studying on these work-based routes to a bachelor’s or master’s degree. In Wales, degree apprenticeship delivery is currently limited to bachelor’s level and only in the subject areas of engineering and advanced manufacturing, and digital. Given the ageing population in Wales and the increasing urgency of reskilling that population, it is important that Welsh Government supports universities in providing a broad range of work-based routes to undergraduate and postgraduate learning.

For universities, there will be a need for us to work with government and other providers to consider how we can increase flexibility for those wishing to study flexibly. For example, what opportunities do people have to complete short courses or to study at the times that best work for them?

There are also opportunities for all post-16 providers in Wales to build on the existing collaboration that takes place which, as well as facilitating progress, could also help deliver skills in potentially remote or rural areas, or in ways that fit with work or caring responsibilities.

The workplace is changing, and there are risks and opportunities for Wales in this change. One part of Wales’ response to these future challenges must be how we provide higher level skills in ways that are flexible and accessible. Universities working with key stakeholders have an important role to play in achieving this. And by ensuring we have a post-16 education system that is flexible and responsive to the future needs of Wales, we can provide opportunities for people of all ages and all backgrounds to gain new skills and benefit from the opportunities that automation could bring to a modern and prosperous Wales.