Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 50

Submission from Portia


  The decision will have negative impact in terms of exclusion from valuable re-training opportunities of the following citizen groups:

    —  Women (who did attain a university degree in the past) requiring retraining at higher skills level in order to be able to compete effectively in the labour market after a career break.

    —  Experienced mature and older people who wish to engage in lifelong learning for socio-economic reasons.

    —  Women and men in early and mid-careers who wish to change career direction to areas more in line with the demands of a knowledge-based economy and a digital future.

  Evidence of demand:

  Professor Daphne Jackson, who set up in 1985 the first (and still the only) retraining initiative to help women scientists return to research after a career break summarised the issue of women returners most succinctly by saying "Imagine a society that would allow Marie Curie to stack shelves in a supermarket simply because she took a career break for family reasons". The Daphne Jackson Trust has dealt with over 2000 inquiries since then and has helped over 150 women to retrain and become economically active again through its fellowship scheme. There should be support available for others, which do not meet the criteria of the scheme, however.

  The UK Resource Centre for Women in SET, set up in 2005 in collaboration with the Open University (and European funding) a course to help women returners with a background in SET to re-establish their career directions and aspirations. This course attracted over 100 women each time it was advertised.

  Equalitec, which targets women and opportunities in Information Technology, Electronics and Communications, has with the assistance of European funding identified a variety of pathways from retraining to employment. In areas of emerging importance, such as e-security, e-Health, Internet Computing, Sustainable Engineering, the best and the most cost-effective retraining was found at higher education institutions. This gives individuals up-to-date knowledge and skills and a recognised professional status.

  Research by Cambridge University reported in 2005 that between 1997 and 2001 nearly 50,000 women IT professionals were lost from the IT labour market. Without suitable retraining, they will never come back.

  Many girls avoid choosing science or engineering subject at GCSE or Advanced school level but have the required aptitudes for these subjects. They should be encouraged and supported in changing their career direction later in life to take advantage of the opportunities created by technology-driven transformations. This is one way that more women can be brought into the industry.

  "Women are also severely under-represented in ITEC jobs in all countries and their participation in recent years has been decreasing across the whole sample. In the UK in 2000 only 13% of women were working in ITEC jobs across the whole economy, down from 16% in 1999". (Women & Equality Unit, 2001)


  The timing and implementation contradicts the growing importance of knowledge based industries, which employ half of the UK workforce (ESRC, Knowledge Economy in the UK Fact Sheet, 2007.

  The August 2006 issue of Computer Weekly pointed out some stark realities of the UK IT labour market, based on research conducted by e-Skills UK:

    "The outsourcing of IT jobs overseas appears to be having a major impact on the employment market in the UK".

    "Jobs for lower-paid professions such as helpdesk and operations staff are in decline, with many companies finding it cheaper to outsource day-to-day operations to the developing world in India and the Far East".

    "We are finding that the number of higher-end jobs is increasing".

    "Individuals need to ensure that the training and experience they get benefits future career prospects, rather than merely providing a short term fix".

    "Forty per cent of business requirements are for skills at advanced levels. The challenge intensifies when you consider that, with the continued gender imbalance in the IT workforce, just one in five technology workers is female".

    "The skills required are constantly increasing in depth and breadth. Many entry-level jobs are now being sourced from abroad, and the growth in the UK is predominantly in high-level roles, which demand sophisticated skills in business, client relationship and project management, alongside technical competencies".

  Furthermore, in contrast to the Government's current strategy for skills, which targets lower level skills up to NVQ 2, the European Commission, and in particular the Information Society and Media Directorate sees higher skills, level 5 and above, as critical to the future of European industry (presented by Nancy Pascal at the Knowledge and Skills for a Digital Future Conference at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, September 2007). The following quote helps to summarises this position:

  The IT, telecommunications and audiovisual industries "are converging with century-old barriers disappearing between content and service, and between telephone and TV. New opportunities in areas as diverse as culture and healthcare can flourish in this rapidly changing environment. The rules of the game have certainly changed when you can make a film and distribute it worldwide with your mobile phone, or when super-powerful `Grid' computing allows medical researchers to improve drug design".

    Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Information Society and Media


      There will be negative impact on the take up of courses by mothers returning to work and older people seeking new employment opportunities, who have less disposable income and greater financial commitments than young people participating in higher education for the first time.

      The following quotes summarise the position of mothers returning to work.

    "43% women who have children take a voluntary career break. Only 74% of those who want to rejoin the ranks of the employed manage to do so, and among these only 40% manage to return to full time, professional jobs".

    (Sylvia Ann Hewlett & Carolyn Buck Luce, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps,

    Harvard Business Review, 2005)

    "Mothers face greater discrimination in finding a job than disabled people, Asian women and the elderly . . . women returning to work after starting a family face the highest `personal employment penalty' of any group in society—they are around 40% less likely than the average white, able-bodied man to be offered a post".

    (Richard Berthoud & Morten Blekesaune, Persistent Employment

    Disadvantage, 1974-2003, Institute for Social & Economic Research,

    Essex University, 2007)

      For older people, the Guardian reported in May 2006 that the number of people signing up for further education colleges has plummeted following increases in fees and the reduction in courses. Between October 2004 and 2005, the number of over 60s dropped by 25%, the number of 55-59-year-olds dropped by 18.4%, and 45-49-year-olds declined by 16%.

    January 2008

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