What the UK can learn from global innovation in skills - RSA

What the UK can learn from global innovation in skills

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  • Picture of Atif Shafique
    Associate Director, Public Services and Communities (Sabbatical)
  • Adult education
  • Further education
  • Skills
  • Vocational education
  • Public services

Today we published a report alongside WorldSkills UK and Further Education Trust for Leadership that makes the case for learning from global innovation to improve UK skills systems.

Read the report, Adopting Global Skills Innovation for the UK

The importance of improving our skills system and learning from overseas is especially important today.

We are in the midst of a productivity crisis that has seen us fall further behind our global competitors. Levels of inequality and economic insecurity in the UK are among the highest in the developed world. The changing nature of work and the impact of technological change (such as automation) poses major questions for our economy, workplaces and the way we learn.

The “hidden world” of technical and vocational education

The good news is that our skills systems can play a vital role in confronting these challenges, but they require careful recalibration. For too long we have promoted the A-Level-University pathway as the sole route to success and we have under-invested in technical and vocational education (TVET) and adult skills.

The scale of ‘overqualification’ (or more accurately, having the wrong set of qualifications) in the UK suggests that we may have maxed out the value of the former while under-utilising the latter. Indeed, the OECD has described TVET as a “hidden world” in the UK. It plays a vital role in contributing to social and economic outcomes, but often doesn’t get the recognition and investment it deserves.

The tide may be starting to shift, even if ambition hasn’t yet been matched by system-wide reform and the level of investment that is required. We can see this in the ambition of technical education reforms in England, and in the direction of travel in the devolved nations towards skills policies and systems that promote productivity and inclusive growth.

On top of this, as our report suggests, there is a rich asset base of innovative and inspiring practice that already exists in the UK – for example in its FE sector, and in skills competitions – that we can build upon.

Learning, not copying, from the rest of the world

In the remainder of this blog I outline what we can learn from global practice in four of the places that we chose for case study research: Switzerland, Shanghai, Russia and Singapore.

Our intention with the research was not to ‘borrow’ policies or structures from other countries, but rather to learn about how change happens in complex systems in response to moments of opportunity and challenge. Each of the four case studies have insights that are relevant to the challenges the UK faces today.

Read the report, Adopting Global Skills Innovation for the UK

Switzerland: Institutionalised innovation

Switzerland is one of the most dynamic, productive, innovative and inclusive economies in the world.

At the heart of its success is its technical and vocational education system, which is built around apprenticeships, quality professional education, and a high degree of permeability between vocational and general education.

Careers Guidance

Its system is also underpinned by first-rate careers guidance delivered by appropriately trained professionals, significant bridging support and a ‘case management’ system that uses a caseworker model to ensure those at risk of exclusion from learning and work are provided with holistic support to bounce back. 

Social Partnership Structure

The social partnership structure is of course a key part of the story:

  • Federal government
  • industry actors (including powerful industry associations that ensure coordination in sectors)
  • social actors (such as unions)
  • and cantons (local government)

are integral to the governance of the system, and this is formalised through law.


Yet Switzerland isn’t a typical coordinated market economy with high levels of central planning. In fact, it has flourished because while it has a stable core of high-quality institutions, there is considerable scope for innovation and adaptation.

This innovative capacity is institutionalised through the social partnership structure, and was behind one of the most successful innovations in the Swiss system: the creation of Universities of Applied Sciences that connected vocational and further academic learning.

Cantons also have a powerful role within the system, so that local innovation is actively promoted. As one of the people we spoke to put it:

“the Swiss system changes slowly, but it changes all the time.”

Shanghai: Skills for economic transformation

Shanghai provides lessons for those places that are in the process of reinventing their economic purpose following economic decline or deindustrialisation.


Over the last four decades the city went from an economy centred on low-value manufacturing to a global metropolitan hub of high-value trade, manufacturing and professional services.

The approach that it took to skills and talent development was at the core of this. One of the key pillars was retraining the large swaths of the city that had become redundant due to the winding down of its state-owned enterprises.

Local experimentation 

An important factor behind the success of Shanghai – especially relevant as the UK devolution debate heats up – is the degree to which the Chinese state actively promotes local experimentation as a tool for policy and systems development. Shanghai had considerable autonomy and levers to develop skills and economic institutions that made the best of local assets and were refined through processes of testing, piloting and scaling. The approach it took to upskilling as part of its Talent Strategy is a case in point.

Russia: Embedding global standards

Russia demonstrates what can be achieved through an active and explicit process of benchmarking itself against other countries and trying to learn from the best global practices.

The context for Russia was especially challenging, having to respond to the consequences of post-Soviet structuring of the economy and the technical and vocational education institutions that were built around it.

Skills competitions 

The challenges were brought to light when Russia first took part in the WorldSkills competition, finishing close to the bottom. The journey it has been on since been striking. Not only has it become a major force in the competitions, but the status and quality of its skills systems have been elevated.

A key part of what has been achieved is down to the way Russia has used skills competitions and WorldSkills global standards to transform its entire system – from end-point assessments and the training of educators, all the way through to the engagement of employers and the development of strategies for responding to the future needs of the economy.

Internationalisation has been integral to Russia’s modernisation agenda.

Read the report, Adopting Global Skills Innovation for the UK

Singapore: Building a future economy with vocational education at its heart

Singapore is a well-known powerhouse for education and economic growth. Yet an important dimension of Singapore’s ascendancy has been the way that it has embraced technical and vocational education and lifelong learning through a sophisticated process of social engagement and movement-building.

SkillsFuture: a movement to promote lifelong learning

The development of the country’s SkillsFuture approach is a case in point. SkillsFuture is explicitly described as a “movement” rather than a programme or policy – and it is a movement designed to promote lifelong learning and to encourage people (including adults) to engage in learning and skills development and to see it as a lifetime activity.

The institutional architecture behind SkillsFuture is also impressive, and ranges from:

  • career guidance and internships for those in school
  • placements and learning credits for those just starting work
  • and a range of courses, fellowships and development opportunities for those that are seeking to grow their careers.

Skills competitions

As part of this infrastructure, skills competitions are also used as a mechanism for orienting people towards future careers. Personal training accounts have been especially valuable in Singapore, and since they were introduced adult participation in learning has grown considerably.

In all of our case study areas, skills competitions are also used in interesting ways:

  • building the status and profile of VET
  • increasing the quality of employer engagement
  • developing talent and professional identity
  • applying learning from the best global practices.   

Key success factors

Our report outlines a number of ‘key success factors’ that we have developed as a way for UK policymakers and practitioners to think about how global insights might help them think about the design principles for reform.

The details of these can be found in the report, but briefly they are:

  • Stakeholder-led, locally rooted governance: As opposed to marketised governance and micro-management from central government.
  • No dead ends: Ensuring that everyone has the opportunities and support to develop their skills and flexibly switch between different parts of our skills systems.
  • High quality, high status: Recognising that addressing the so-called ‘parity of esteem’ issues between vocational and general education means investing in quality TVET, and seeing quality and status as mutually reinforcing.
  • Vision setting and movement-building: Skills systems are most effective when they have a clear vision and are part of a broader social contract that citizens can get behind.
  • Learn and innovate: Developing capacity and permissive environment to try new things and experiment; recognising that different things work in different places and different contexts.

Read the report, Adopting Global Skills Innovation for the UK

Where do we go from here?

There are key implications for policy and practice stemming from this analysis that are especially important to highlight from an RSA perspective.

Place matters

The first is that place matters. Skills institutions are part of local ‘ecosystems’ of learning, living and work.

In an important analysis of regional productivity differences in the UK, Philip McCann finds that the social, demographic and institutional contexts of places vary so much from place to place that the idea of ‘national’ policy finding ‘cookie cutter’ solutions is problematic.

This makes devolution all the more important – and we argue for far more significant devolution of skills policy and funding levers where there is proper governance in place.

This should be ‘devolution by default’ rather than devolution by deal-making. The FE sector and skills competitions can also play a key role here, especially in learning from the best national and global practices and introducing them to the UK.

Skills systems need partnership, not control, from the centre

The second is that skills institutions are part of complex systems that bely one-size fits all solutions, or centralised planning.

The difficult history of skills reform in the UK – characterised by a high degree of churn and tinkering – underscores this.

It is critical therefore to create an infrastructure for skills policy and development that is adaptive and open, and allows practitioners and leaders greater discretion in finding solutions and scaling them up.

This also requires a degree of stability in the centre – which is why we propose the development of a Future Skills Council (FSC) established by statute and accountable to Parliament (in contrast to the closed down UK Commission for Employment and Skills).

The FSC would become the ‘skills’ equivalent to bodies such as the Low Pay Commission and the Office of Budget Responsibility, providing stable, long term leadership based on a social partnership approach. Policy development and leadership would extend beyond electoral and ministerial cycles.

More investment needed

Finally, there is no getting away from the need for greater investment in skills – adult skills in particular – than we currently have. The places we looked at all demonstrated an investment mindset, and it’s important the UK does too.

The UK may face significant social, economic and skills challenges but there is no shortage of inspiring and innovative leadership and practice to build on. The report highlights how we might do this.

Read: Adopting Global Skills Innovation for the UK

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  • 1) Completely agree that focus should be on the devolved local partnership model, with both funding, and direction of training policy, shared between central government, local authorities, and the local business community.  This should match well with an approach to building community "innovation hubs" in every local region of the UK to provide community based expertise in technological transformation (Green circular economy), micro finance for business start-ups and innovation pilot experiments, which could also play a key role in co-ordination vocational training.   These "innovation hubs" should draw on the German  Fraunhofer model too, and provide an important public space where local businesses, skills specialists, and community leaders can come together to shape a technology transformation program for the region. 

    2) Basic Income is key for trainees to provide financial subsistence through training and/or re-training programs.  Loss of earnings is a major barrier to skills development choices.  UBI will not only solve the "student loan" problem for undergraduates, but solve it in a way that also gives skills training opportunities to every citizen - including, rather than excluding, those who don't want to do a degree course. They can choose a vocational training path without needing access to student loans. 

    3) Where possible central government should set skills attainment standards for key jobs that will provide greater incentive to achieve vocational qualifications.  Construction skills for example are poor because building firms will use any labour they can get their hands on, instead of the industry as a whole pushing to raise the standards (and pay) of properly trained and certified construction workers.