The government has used the Queen’s speech at the state opening of parliament to reiterate its plans to launch a lifetime learning fund and increase state spending on research and development.
Presenting the government’s legislative agenda for the forthcoming year, the Queen told assembled parliamentarians that ministers would “oversee the fastest ever increase in public funding for research and development and pass legislation to establish an advanced research agency”.
The government has committed to increasing investment in R&D public funding to £22 billion per year by 2024/25 – reaching 2.4% of GDP by 2027.
The advanced research agency – the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) – will, according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), “have a much higher tolerance for failure than is normal, recognising that in research the freedom to fail is often also the freedom to succeed”.
MPs and peers have raised questions over the relationship between ARIA and ministers. BEIS secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has described the £800m agency as “independent” but not “isolated” from government-set priorities.
The Queen delivered the speech, traditionally addressed to members of both chambers, to a socially-distanced select few from the House of Lords and the Commons.
The Queen told the smaller-than-normal audience that ministers intend to bring forth legislation that “will support a lifetime skills guarantee, to enable flexible access to high-quality education and training throughout people’s lives.”
Universities minister Michelle Donelan told an audience of higher education professionals last month that the government will begin trialling loan-funded access to tuition fees for modules at select English institutions from 2022.
The trial will help the government implement its Lifelong Loan Entitlement, part of its skills white paper for England, which promises learners loans equivalent to “four years of post-18 education” throughout their lifetime from 2025.
The trial would, Donelan said, “inform our approach to lifelong learning, and is a key step towards our delivery of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, as well as supporting some students to participate in shorter modular courses in England as early as 2022.”
The government has also used the Queen’s speech to detail its intention to pass the Online Safety Bill. The Queen said the new laws will “lead the way in ensuring internet safety for all, especially for children, whilst harnessing the benefits of a free, open and secure internet”. Regulation will be overseen by Ofcom.
How has the education sector reacted to the Queen’s speech?
Carole Willis, chief executive of the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) welcomed “the continued focus on investing in further education (FE) and the strengthening of local relationships with employers”. Willis added: “This is of key importance in supporting students to acquire the skills and competencies needed by employers, to fill skills gaps and boost the post-COVID-19 economy.”
Melanie Thomson, online safety representative at RM Education, said the Online Safety Bill was a good idea – but said more needed to be done in schools and the home to educate children and young people about the risks of the internet.
Alan Hiddleston, director of corporate learning at D2L, said the skills gap “in and of itself is nothing new”, but the pandemic “has added a new sense of urgency and the rapid pace of change”.
He continued: “There needs to be greater collaboration between both education and enterprise. This is because businesses will require their staff to retrain throughout their career, and higher ed institutions or colleges will need to update their courses to ensure students are better prepared to enter the job market. Modularity, or an omni-channel approach toward education and training, will be essential.”
Simon Lambert, chief learning officer at Microsoft UK, said: “Improving access to adult education is a step in the right direction to creating a skills-based hiring market and lifelong learning culture.
“The lifetime skills guarantee will help ensure equal opportunities for all and connect people’s new skills, no matter their age or previous education, to the jobs of the future,” Lambert added.