Peers warn over scale of UK digital skills challenge
Digital committee chair believes UK has yet to fully understand changes needed to implement competitive IT skills strategy
The chair of the House of Lords Committee on Digital Skills has said the scale of changes required to develop a national strategy for building the UK's IT capabilities to better compete in a globalised economy is much larger than anticipated - at least based on early evidence of its ongoing review.
Rather than a party political issue, committee chair Baroness Morgan of Huyton has said that early impressions from research beginning this month indicate a need for change in how digital skills are managed is much bigger than currently recognised across parliament.
The recently formed committee is collecting evidence from across the public and private sectors as part of efforts to define future government strategy beyond next year's general election in order to build skills regardless of party affiliation.
Baroness Morgan said the key priority for the committee's findings was to provide "sensible, deliverable recommendations" to ensure the UK has sufficient digital skills, while looking at what such a plan would mean for primary and higher education, training bodies and employers.
While calls for evidence were issued just under a month ago, the baroness said the committee had been bombarded with interest about the nature of its digital skills policy and the potential wide ranging impacts on business, as well as government itself.
"I think we are nowhere near to understanding the change that is needed. I think whoever is in power, at any time, is going to constantly have to keep looking at this issue. The evidence we have so far suggests that a lot of quite good little thinking - lots of small interesting projects are going on - but the scale is not being understood," she said.
"For example there is a new computing curriculum coming into play, which I think people in the industry are very excited about, but there is no great plan at the moment about how to produce the teachers who are going to deliver it."
Baroness Morgan said that the committee was treating the issue of digital skills not only as an issue of competitiveness, but also one of access.
"The way the committee is looking at this is that everyone needs to be up-skilled to a certain level. One of the questions is how do you keep that skill level moving as change takes place? It's no good skilling everyone up now and saying that's it," she added. "So it's how do you make sure you skill-up and maintain that level and how do you work with people who have never been brought to that skill level?"
From her work as committee chair, Baroness Morgan said interesting evidence had already been received from government departments wishing to boost skills of their own workforces.
"On the government and infrastructure side, Lord McDonald, who is one of our committee members, was in the Cabinet Office handling this very issue a decade ago and he's been particularly interested in this," she said.
"We have already met with officials and will end up meeting more formally with government. The handling of government infrastructure and for example broadband is obviously of interest to us, but it is not where we are going to put the main focus, because in a sense it is being looked at and I think there is a general view that the Cabinet Office is already in the driving seat on that."
With other ad-hoc committees have been looking at issues such like the digital divide and the impact of government departments shifting towards digital, paper-free public services, the committee will focus primarily on digital skills, according to the chair.
As well as addressing issues of addressing a skills gap, particularly within an ageing population, Baroness Morgan also identified a need for producing higher-level digital capabilities of which Britain is currently believed to be "desperately short".
In trying to address these skills, Baroness Morgan expressed a belief that the schools focus of the committee's report was expected to be a "relatively small" part of overall findings compared to post-16 education, which is anticipated to be a much bigger issue.
She added that the enquiry would then have to consider the possible implications of this for schools, post-16 education, further training, higher education, apprenticeships and the workplace and where changes may be needed to encourage best practice in terms of training.
Baroness Morgan said that the committee had to take a "focused approach" in trying to understand digital capabilities in the UK to ensure that ideas on tackling skills shortages feed into the next government - regardless of whoever is in charge after General Election polling concludes in May.
"The argument has been very much that there has been little bits of this agenda looked at, but nobody has looked at the specific issue of competitiveness properly," she said.
"What's interesting is that there is genuine interest in what we are doing. I've been on a range of select committees and with some it's like pulling teeth. It is quite hard to get people to give evidence. But with this one, I am passing it though to the clerk, but I am being bombarded with people asking how do we do this? When do we come in? When can we have a meeting with you?
"Now some of those are obviously from contractors, through to think tanks, to particular groups within industry. The education sector is really interested, so I think we are not going to be short of people to give evidence."
With the deadline for submitting written evidence for the enquiry set for 5th September, Baroness Morgan said the committee had worked to specifically invite a rage of organisations and individuals covering key areas of the report's remit.
The committee was nonetheless anticipating an "enormous amount" of additional responses to its focus.
Baroness Morgan added that the ad-hoc committee was intended to have a "short, very focused" remit in order to produce a final report by January 2015 that would be used to inform a government response and a wider debate before May.
"Assuming that we get a debate before the general election, I anticipate it would be the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) that would respond [to the inquiry's findings]. But we will receive evidence, and have already met with officials from a range of government departments"
From her own experiences as a peer, Baroness Morgan said that even in institutions such as The House of Lords, there had been definite changes in the role of digital infrastructure and skills, as well as the possible need for new skills.
"In terms of making sure we upskill the population, we need to upskill the Lords," she said, adding that even in the last few years, there have been major changes in the way technologies such as tablets were influencing the way peers work.
"I have certainly seen a change. When I was first in the lords, even basic things like your weekly whip and party notices used to come by post and therefore you got them three days later. I don't receive anything like that now by post."