UK PM Boris Johnson unveils free college courses plan for COVID-hit workers

Funding for courses offering "skills valued by employers" will be made available from April 2021, with a full list of the free courses to be announced next month.

Published: 29th September 2020 08:13 PM  |   Last Updated: 29th September 2020 08:13 PM   |  A+A-

UK Prime minister

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wearing a face mask, visits the headquarters of the London Ambulance Service NHS Trust in London, Monday. (Photo | AP)


LONDON: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday set out plans for a "radical change" to the country's education system by offering free college-level courses to benefit those hit by the adverse effects of the coronavirus lockdown.

Making a reference to the various schemes set out by his Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to try and address job losses across various sectors during the pandemic, Johnson said the courses would be a means for people to re-skill and re-train in order to apply for different jobs.

"We're devising ever more imaginative ways to safeguard jobs and livelihoods, including the Winter Economy Plan, which Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, announced last week. Alas as Rishi said, we cannot save every job," he said in a speech setting out his "Lifetime Skills Guarantee" plan.

"But what we can do is give everybody, give people the skills to find and create new and better jobs… As part of our Lifetime Skills Guarantee, we will now fund technical courses for adults equivalent to A level, all of which teach skills that are highly in demand," he said.

The UK prime minister, who was speaking at Exeter College in Devon in the south west of England, said the pandemic had "massively accelerated" changes to the world of work, and made training gaps "painfully apparent".

Therefore, funding changes were needed to help end the "bogus distinction" between academic and practical learning.

Funding for courses offering "skills valued by employers" will be made available from April 2021, with a full list of the free courses to be announced next month.

Further details of the education strategy to be set out in a white paper later in the year.

"We are short of skilled construction workers, and skilled mechanics, and skilled engineers, and we are short of hundreds of thousands of IT experts. And it is not as though the market does not require these skills. The market will pay richly," he said.

"The problem is one of supply – and somehow our post-18 educational system is not working in such a way as to endow people with those skills," he said, pointing to a "sizeable proportion" of lab technicians being from overseas.

"We have to face the fact – that at this moment when we need them so much, there is a shortage of UK-trained lab technicians," he lamented.

The government also plans to make higher education loans more flexible, with the aim of letting people "space out" their learning throughout their lives rather than in three or four-year blocks, enabling more part-time study.

"We are going to change the funding model so that it is just as easy to get a student loan to do a year of electrical engineering at an FE (further education) college – or do two years of electrical engineering – as it is to get a loan to do a three year degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics," Johnson said.

"At the moment many young people feel they have to go for the degree option. They feel they have only one chance to study, and to borrow. They might as well go for the maximum, and get a degree. Under our plans you could go for a one-year technical qualification and launch yourself at life – or you could do that, and then go to university later on. You have the choice," he added.

As part of the plans, small businesses will be offered financial incentives to take on apprentices and funds will be pumped into expanding so-called "digital boot camps" – where people can learn IT skills, based on successful pilots in Manchester and Birmingham.

The Opposition Labour Party said the government plans would not reverse the impact of "a decade of cuts" to the finances of the education system.

"A week ago Labour called for a National Retraining Strategy fit for the crisis Britain faces, but what the government proposes is simply a mix of reheated old policies and funding that won't be available until April," said Labour's shadow education secretary, Kate Green.


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