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Digital skills will make or break UK, say Lords

The UK is at a tipping point: The country is not addressing its significant digital skills shortage and an incoming Government urgently needs to resolve this, a Lords report warns today. The Digital Skills Committee also highlights the impact of changing technology on the labour market, with an estimated 35% of UK jobs at risk of being automated over the next 20 years.

The report, entitled “Make or Break: The UK's Digital Future”, urges the incoming Government to seize the opportunity to secure the UK's place as a global digital leader by, among other things:

  • making digital literacy a core subject at school, alongside English and Maths;
  • viewing the internet as important as a utility, accessible to all; and
  • putting a single ‘Digital Agenda' at the heart of Government.

The report also noted that there are certain sectors of society, and UK regions, falling behind at great cost to the economy; and that industry has a vital role to play in developing the right skills in the workplace, in further and higher education, and in schools.

The report also found that there is a distinct lack of Government coordination on digital initiatives – the current digital ‘activity' within Government includes four Government Ministers, a Taskforce, a Committee, and a Unit. The Committee cites this as glaring evidence for creating a single Digital Agenda driven by one Cabinet Minister.

Commenting on the report, Chair of the Committee Baroness Morgan, added:

“This report is a wake-up call to whoever forms the next Government in May. Digital is everywhere, with digital skills now seen as vital life skills. It's obvious, however, that we're not learning the right skills to meet our future needs.

“The report makes it clear that our approach to educating people of all ages needs a radical re-think. From an early age we need to give digital literacy as much importance as numeracy and literacy. While we welcome the introduction of the computing curriculum, we are concerned about the ability of teachers to deliver it, with more than half of our IT teachers not having a post-A level qualification relevant to IT. At the higher education level, there is an urgent need for industry input, so that graduates are learning job-relevant digital skills.

“The Committee also found that internet provision in the UK needs a boost. It's unacceptable that some urban areas still experience ‘not-spots', particularly where the lack of internet directly affects the UK's ability to compete. Also, in some parts of the UK, as many as 20% of the population has never used the internet. Only when the Government treats the internet as a utility, as important and vital for people as water or electricity, will these issues be addressed.

“Our overwhelming recommendation is that the incoming Government creates a Digital Agenda, with the goal of securing the UK's place as a leading digital economy within the next five years. Digital skills can no longer be dealt with by individual departments – this must all join up. We urge the new Government to create a Cabinet Minister post to steer this Digital Agenda through.

“We are at a make-or-break point for the future of the UK – for its economy, its workforce and its people. We have a choice as a country about whether we seize this opportunity or whether we fall behind. This report declares that the UK must aim to be a global digital leader, and only clear leadership from the Government will get us there.”

The report has called for action on digital skills in the following main areas:

  • The economy – millions of jobs are at risk of automation.
    It's been estimated that some 35% of UK jobs are at risk of being automated over the next 20 years. The Government is not doing enough to prepare the UK for the future labour market, and failure to act now will see UK Plc trail behind. We need to harness the potential of regional hubs and SMEs, which are being held up through a lack of skills.
  • Skills – the UK population needs to learn the right skills for the future.
    The report found that at all ages, from primary to secondary, to further and higher education, there is a significant s gap in skills education. Industry needs to play a role in plugging this gap, particularly by offering more – and better – apprenticeships. We need a culture shift in our attitude towards cybersecurity, and must ensure we train enough people with the right skills.
  • Schools – make digital literacy a third core subject.
    The report recommends that digital literacy should be taught as a core subject alongside numeracy and literacy. While the Committee welcomed the new computing curriculum, it was concerned about who was going to teach it, as many teachers are not confident or equipped to deliver relevant digital skills.
  • Internet – view the internet as important as a utility.
    The report urges a culture shift on how we view the interne; it should now be defined as a utility, available to all. The Committee found it unacceptable that there are still urban areas experiencing internet ‘not-spots', where broadband infrastructure is non-existent.
  • Inclusion – realise the benefits of universal digital access.
    The Committee discovered many who have been overlooked by the digital revolution. Some six million citizens have never used the internet, partly through being poorly served at school. The report highlighted that digital inclusion is potentially worth £63bn a year to UK GDP.
  • Women – realise the economic potential of more women in digital careers.
    The report found that increasing the number of women in digital jobs could reap significant economic growth. Women and girls are not choosing digital and science and technology career paths or subjects at school. Partly this is because these careers are seen as a ‘boys club', partly because careers guidance needs reforming, and partly because the guiding influences in their lives are unaware of the broad range of careers on offer.

Key data from the report:

  • A third of SMEs do not have a website. Report p.72
  • More than half of secondary ICT teachers do not have a post A-level qualification relevant to ICT. Report p.47
  • Of the 4,000 students doing Computer Science at A level, fewer than 100 were girls. Report p.32
  • Universal digitisation, including universal digital access, could be worth up to £63 billion in additional annual GDP growth. Report p.29
  • More than 12% of UK adults (16 ) have never used the internet. Report p.144

To view a video of Baroness Morgan talking about the report, please visit this YouTube link.

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