Like many around the world, I have been watching and reading an unhealthy amount of news, an increasingly large part of which is reports of job losses and company closures. 

Every job loss has profound implications on a personal and public level, and it has led me to think about the road back for these people and companies and, more broadly, societies and economies.

One of the most important questions in Skills Systems policy, which is my particular focus, is the extent to which technical and vocational education supports people into meaningful, sustained, employment. 

There is now, I think, consensus from policymakers, employers and educators that training provision must respond to the needs of the labour market.  

However, with the profound and sudden impact of COVID-19 on local and global job markets, particularly in sectors which employ a high-proportion of the workforce, such as hospitality, these needs are evolving faster than training providers can react.  

All of this takes place in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the climate emergency. It is increasingly challenging for skills systems and the policymakers who shape them to create frameworks that are responsive enough to adapt to changes in labour market demand, whilst maintaining the necessary quality and oversight.

In the face of both acute and long-term challenges, it is clear that education must adapt to meet the changing world of work. However, I believe the solutions need to be more far reaching. 

To safeguard against future shocks and respond to the current ones, we need a bold approach to skills development that does not simply react to changing labour markets, but anticipates and shapes them.

A local and a global issue

Employment is a global as well as a local issue. It is easy to think that high unemployment or underemployment in another country does not touch lives elsewhere, but that is not true. Those people may well be part of the supply chain for goods and services consumed here.  

The value of employment for stability is crucial. The World Bank notes that ‘two billion working-age adults exist outside the labour market, and this lack of employment can act as a societal destabilizer’.

Access to employment is a crucial issue for voters and, by extension, those they elect. For example, a survey conducted in India by the Association for Democratic reform in 2018 found that ‘Better Employment Opportunities’ was cited as the most important voter priority amongst the 270,000 respondents.

Our global experience and conversations with policymakers and people reinforces employment as a crucial issue everywhere and underlines the importance of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET).  

The role of cultural relations

Cultural relations is about listening and responding to our partners and the issues that matter to them. 

Furthermore, the UK skills systems have been at the forefront of now global standards and practice, such as National Qualification Frameworks and Sector Skills Councils. It is unsurprising that countries of all sizes and types are interested in the current practice across the four nations of the UK.

At the British Council we have long had a role in helping forge educations systems that equip and re-equip people with the skills they need to access, and create, secure, skilled work. For example, we have our long-established Skills and Employability Global programme.

However, to continue to be effective in responding to the new challenges we face, we need to understand more fully the impact on employment outcomes of systemic TVET reform. 

New research findings

To address this, last year we commissioned international social research consultancy the Research Base to undertake independent research that addresses that specific point.  

The report found that ‘successful TVET system-level reforms were identified across a wide range of ODA [Official Development Assistance]countries. The most commonly identified outcomes were in employment rates and employer satisfaction. Evidence was also found of positive impact in the areas of sustainable employment, income levels, productivity levels and social inclusion.’

The research shows that TVET reform is making a difference in a wide range of countries and highlights effective practice. 

It will help us, and our partners better understand which systemic reform projects in TVET are most effective at improving employment prospects and shape our work to provide the ‘better employment opportunities’ the citizens of India and elsewhere need.

These findings are important because there is a feeling amongst some donors that investment in TVET improvement projects does not represent value for money. The inefficiency of some direct training programmes has dominated the conversation, with less emphasis given to understanding the effectiveness and return on investment of systemic interventions.  

This new research highlights the positive impact on employment outcomes that investing in TVET at a systemic level can bring. It also makes some recommendations. These include the need for projects and the way they are measured to take a longer-term view, as well as reaffirming the value of local and national buy-in to systemic change. These recommendations and new ways of working, such as international benchmarking of systems (as we have recently done for Apprenticeships), form the platform for a bold approach to build systems to meet the emerging employment needs of citizens now and in the future.

We know that this is just a start. Further collaboration between partners and donors is needed to advance this agenda.  

Ultimately, better TVET systems mean better employment outcomes. We have seen the potential impact through our projects such as I-WORKDakchyata and the EU VET Toolbox.

Looking to the future

Improved employment outcomes are a key ambition of donors, governments and development agencies. If they are to fund TVET reform, it is reasonable for them to ask for evidence that it is effective in addressing those priorities. We believe this research offers reassurance on that front. Ultimately, we would urge donors not to write off TVET reform as ineffective just because it is multi-faceted and complex to analyse. As the report says: ‘While measuring outcomes is complex, it is not impossible.’ It also sets out several recommendations for how we can better embed strong evidence collection mechanisms into reform programmes, including a core theory of change contained in the report. We would welcome views on this element.

The acute labour market challenges presented by COVID-19, the fourth industrial revolution and the climate emergency are not limited by international borders – nor should our collaboration to address them. 

We will continue to bring people together in common endeavour to make TVET work better for economies and societies.