Next UK government must prioritise 'education arms race', say consultants

16 May 2017 7 min. read

The UK’s management consulting industry has published a 5-point manifesto for the snap general election set to take place on the 8th of June 2017. Topping the MCA (Management Consultancies Association) wish-list is a “50% uplift in public and private spending on education and research” which the Association claims is needed to enable the UK to win an approaching “education arms race” after Brexit.

Based on feedback from its member firms, which include many of top global consulting firms as well as specialist UK companies, the MCA’s “Manifesto for Growth” argues whichever party triumphs at the polls must join up policies on five essential fronts, if the post-EU UK is to become an international success story.

In the first article of the five-point plan, the document calls upon the next government to prioritise winning an “education arms race.” The manifesto consequently highlights the importance of utilising state funds to radically transform the education system, which needs retooling to enable the future work-force to deal with challenges they cannot afford to be ill-equipped for, including increased automation, Brexit and beyond.

Public Spending of the UK Government

Education and research

To meet these upcoming demands head-on, the MCA say the election’s victors must prioritise a significant public and private spending increase of at least 50% on education and research by 2025. The UK reportedly spent £84 billion of tax-payers money on education in 2016, and while the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats have both pledged to protect school funding in real terms, increasing with inflation, the main party of opposition have made the most significant commitment to this yet. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour last week pledged an extra £6 billion a year to boost school budgets, as well as announcing their intent to abolish tuition fees in higher education, with a view to preparing the British workforce for the post-Brexit economy.

Continuing to highlight the need for investment in the nation’s educational infrastructure meanwhile, the MCA’s dossier also argues for a stronger emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – already a governmental priority – but also asserts that this focus should be set within a more rounded and creative approach overall. While ensuring STEM graduates are imbued with “soft-skills” to fortify their broader employability, the document also advocates that the next government should take steps to equip non-graduate learners with skills that will empower them in an increasingly tech-oriented jobs market.

This follows from a report earlier this year from multinational professional service firm McKinsey & Company, who forecast increasing economic uncertainty for millennials in the near future, as the jobs they most commonly fulfil are rapidly automated. McKinsey’s analyses concluded that over 60% of all work activities could be automated by 2055 – a prediction which according to the MCA warrants a renovation of the curriculum to promote creativity as AI begins to impact on the jobs market. Meanwhile, with the UK’s National Health Service still reeling from a cyberattack late last week, the need for technological skills within all forms of education has suddenly been pushed to the fore of the political agenda.

Further to this the MCA’s document encourages politicians to end damaging early specialisation in tertiary education – something that the ruling Conservative Party have ruled out repeatedly in spite of mounting public criticism of incumbent Prime Minister Theresa May’s commitment to a new generation of Grammar Schools. The proposed selective schools will subject children to entry examinations at the age of 11, and May’s 2017 election rivals have claimed that this process abandons the majority of children who are not early developers, while privileging children from wealthier backgrounds.

Public Spending of the UK Government on Education

Elsewhere, the MCA’s manifesto also argues prospective policy-makers recognise that world-class theoretical research in tertiary institutions underpins world-class practical output. Practically this means setting twin-targets of respecting both lifelong learning in higher education, and pre-work vocational studies, which could be backed up by converting the current Apprenticeships Levy into an Industrial Learning Fund. By reconfiguring the education system in this way, the MCA contend that a mutually supportive relationship between world-class tertiary institutions (including theoretical research bodies) and business can be constructed – which ideally would enable top-quality business implementation being informed by the best conceivable research, while the best conceivable research remains responsive to the new challenges presented by a changing society.

To this end, the report’s education section concludes that this chain of practice would enable governments to facilitate a rounded examination of the UK’s forward skills and capacity needs, in line with the aims of its Industrial Strategy, thereby linking the themes of upskilling domestic workers, productivity gains, and subsequently plan better regarding migrant labour needs, in a single, rounded approach, as the post-Brexit landscape continues to morph along with growing technological innovation.

Other Policies

Relatedly, the manifesto’s second point recommends remodelling the UK economy to a high-value, high-wage model – which will require continuous evaluation in order to ensure the best use of human resources as increasing automation means surviving jobs increasingly involve elements of creativity and imaginative problem solving, such as the development of a green economy in the face of climate change.

The document’s third point, meanwhile, reiterates the group’s perceived importance of embracing the Digital Revolution, arguing that contrary to struggling against automation of industry, governments should target its implementation to liberate and utilise talent in ways that can maximise prosperity.

Public Net Debt

The manifesto also includes a call on the next government to radically devolve power and opportunity to communities across the UK. This, the paper claims, acknowledges the international ambitions of regional growth initiatives, while also fostering structures to involve local people in decision making, avoiding the social alienation that led to an anti-establishment backlash that contributed to the Brexit vote last year.

Following this, the final recommendation put forward by the Association is to conduct Brexit negotiations in a spirit of partnership and mutual advantage. At present, tensions are high amid an air of resentment surrounding process – with Theresa May accusing the EU of “interfering” in the election which she called amid faltering negotiations with Brussels. Late last year meanwhile the government received criticism by way of a leaked memo from professional services giant Deloitte suggesting the government had no “overall strategy for Brexit.”

Commenting on the release of the MCA’s manifesto, Chief Executive Alan Leaman reiterated that an overhaul of the education is essential if the UK is to make the most of Brexit, devolved democracy, and the AI revolution. He also took the opportunity to critique the present government’s stance on negotiations with Europe, remarking that “the Government’s Industrial Strategy is unambitious. How its realisation relates to Brexit is unclear. And animosity currently characterises the UK’s relationship with the EU 27, hardly a recipe for success in an economically interdependent world.”