Government criticised for delayed digital skills strategy as 12.6m still lack basics

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

A lack of basic skills training for 12.6 million digitally excluded people, SMEs obstructed from hiring international talent by arbitrary visa restrictions, lots of initiatives but no clear strategy.

Those are just three major criticisms made of government in a wide-ranging inquiry into digital skills by the Science and Technology Committee, from school, to the workplace, to those not in work.

The oft-cited ONS stat on people who have never used the internet, while pretty damning at more than 5 million people, masks the fact that a full 23 per cent of the population lack basic skills even if they have used the web.

For businesses, the committee called upskilling a “matter of survival” and, while praising the establishment of the “world-leading” computer curriculum in 2014, highlights that this will “take time to impact the workplace”.

One interesting approach that appeared in the evidence is Birckbeck’s MSc in Data Science that works as a conversion course for people who graduated in other areas.

Samsung recommended “creating a code conversion course to help graduates from non-computer science backgrounds enter the tech sector with a recognised qualification”, but nothing is in place here as yet.

This is certainly not the first critique of our ‘digital skills crisis’, a crisis acknowledged in the report’s title.

On top of the Shadbolt and Wakeham reviews of computer science and STEM degrees, plus the House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills report in 2015, and the committee’s own Big Data Dilemma inquiry, there’s an awful lot of paperwork floating around on this issue.

Where’s the government strategy?

The committee’s big hope is that Ed Vaizey’s Digital Strategy, promised soon after the 2015 Spending Review, then again in January, will finally make its way out of DCMS – and that it will actually be of practical use.

In his own evidence to the inquiry, Vaizey admitted that responsibility for ‘digital’ is still spread across the Cabinet Office, BIS and DCMS, no doubt a a recipe for bureaucracy.

He also made clear that the strategy would not have “any particular new funding attached” but that it is “looking at the aspirations for the next 10 years”. Whenever you’re ready.

In the absence of the government’s document, the committee highlights that cyber security, big data, the internet of things, mobile tech and ecommerce skills are key areas that need to be included, particularly with regards to our training of the existing workforce.

The committee has also called on Vaizey to ensure a plan is in place for sharing best practice across large and small businesses, which then goes out into local communities. It also wants visa restrictions for the Tier 2 ‘shortage occupation list’ to be changed so that companies with fewer than 20 staff can also look overseas to fill jobs.

More than just a list of activity

“The MPs question why the government has taken so long to produce the long-promised ‘Digital Strategy’ and call for it to be published without further delay,” the report says.

“The committee warns that the strategy needs to go further than merely listing cross-government digital activity, but present a vision for the future delivered by collaborative work from all involved—industry, educators and Government.”

Indeed, the group of MPs has called on the government to include a transparent “dynamic” map of different initiatives and the money spent on them, in order to match that against the actual economic demand for these skills.

A government spokesman told NS Tech: “This government recognises the crucial role digital skills play in our society and economy.

“Our Digital Strategy, to be published shortly, will set out how we will help employers and individuals access the tools they need to power our digital economy.”

He added:

“This strategy will make sure we are well placed to remain a tech leader in Europe. We will consider the select committee’s report and respond in due course.”

Rachel Neaman, former CEO of government-backed skills provider Go On UK, which recently merged with Martha Lane-Fox’s Doteveryone, has criticised the “complete lack of leadership” on this.

“We have a massive digital skills crisis here in the UK, right from basic skills to advanced digital skills,” Neaman said.

“I’m disappointed, and surprised, that the strategy has taken so long to be created. There are a lot of organisations putting a lot of effort into this – but there needs to be central government leadership, or for the government to pick an organisation to take the lead.”

She added: “This latest report highlights just how big a problem it is – and we have to be clear what we mean and what the problem is that we’re trying to solve.”

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