Press release

Harness modern universities to usher in a bold new approach to boost skills, says MillionPlus

05 Dec 2023

The Government should harness the expertise and local knowledge of modern universities as part of a bold, wide-ranging approach to tackle skills shortages in England, according to a report published today (5 December) by MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities.

Future proofing England’s workforce – how modern universities can meet the skills challenge highlights England’s entrenched skills gaps across occupations and regions. The current shortages in areas such as healthcare, education, technology and construction constrain economic growth, lower productivity and are placing pressures on public services.

A complex interplay of factors drives these mismatches. Employer decisions around training and job quality interact with Government policies on education, migration, and careers advice. Data limitations, economic conditions, and individual motivation also shape skills imbalances. Tackling gaps requires coordinated efforts engaging all stakeholders.

A concerted effort, engaging all stakeholders, can steer England towards a more dynamic skills ecosystem. But this hinges on empowering modern universities as anchors of opportunity through data, resources and autonomy. With the right conditions, they can help build integrated lifelong learning and funding models attuned to the needs of diverse learners, employers and local economies. This strategic approach offers a route to closing skills gaps, boosting productivity and enabling inclusive growth.

The report recommends that the Government, policymakers and wider stakeholders should:

  • Develop a comprehensive approach to address current skills shortages in England that combines insights from employers, educators and industry bodies to understand the reasons behind shortages.
  • Implement measures, such as incentives for studying in priority areas and efforts to increase the availability of workers with crucial skills, to address current shortages in public services.
  • Consider how best to prioritise skills in strategic sectors such as technology, the green economy, advanced manufacturing and the creative industries.
  • Work together with universities and employers to scale up training and education, incentivise study and foster collaboration between industry and academia in these strategically vital areas.
  • Make available open-access and granular data on skills demands, vacancies and salaries. Innovative analysis, including the use of artificial intelligence, should be encouraged to anticipate future needs.
  • Fully replace skills-focused structural funding with stable, multi-year funding for specific regions and jobs, as well as setting aside funds for creative skills training projects targeting underrepresented groups in higher education.
  • Work to broaden the Apprenticeship Levy into a wider Skills and Training Levy and incentivise training spending through tax reliefs, while prioritising firms committed to staff training in public sector contracts.
  • Work with employers and universities to address challenges related to financial sustainability, access barriers, inequality, recognition of prior learning and the lack of clear career pathways in the Lifelong Learning Entitlement.
  • Place modern universities at the centre of England’s skills strategy where they can use their experience and expertise to deliver the right skills to the right places.

The report also contains guest essays written by, among others: Rt. Hon. The Lord Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science under the coalition Government; Gordon Marsden, former Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Skills; Sara Williams, CEO of Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce; and Shahid Omer, Director of Policy at Universities UK.

A partner report Skills, skills, skills - the role of modern universities delivering the workforce for the future highlights examples of best practice and innovation in skill delivery at modern universities across England.

Professor Graham Baldwin, Chair of MillionPlus, and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, said:

“By 2035, we expect that almost 90% of new jobs will require graduate-level skills. In England, deeply entrenched skills gaps exist across multiple sectors, impeding growth and prosperity, and this fact should raise alarm bells. However, the country’s universities, already providing graduates with highly-valued skills, are central to meeting future skills demands.

“Shortages of nurses and teachers, which are among the most vital roles in any society, are holding the country back. While this remains, we are poorer as a country.

“There is a path to equipping England with the necessary skills both now and in the future. Achieving this goal will require a concerted effort and the active involvement of all key stakeholders, with modern universities serving as vital local anchors at the forefront of this initiative.

“In short, give modern universities the ball and let them run with it.”

Rt. Hon. The Lord Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science under the Coalition Government, said:

“This timely report is a thorough examination of the systemic causes of persistent skills gaps and presents a robust case for a new data-driven approach that would benefit individuals, key sectors and the wider economy.”

Gordon Marsden, former Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Skills, said:

“This clear-eyed MillionPlus report grasps many of the nettles currently holding back productivity and growth. It identifies ways to mind the gaps in skills and how to bridge them, enlisting businesses, and communities around them, highlighting upskilling and reskilling, with priorities in the future for underrepresented groups, adult learners and 16-24 year olds, including NEETs.”

Sara Williams, CEO of Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce, said:

“There is much to recommend in this analysis by MillionPlus, particularly its focus on regional skills gaps that have been stubbornly resistant to change, and outlines a pathway to an alternative.”

Shahid Omer, Director of Policy at Universities UK, said:

“This is an important contribution to the vital ongoing conversation about skills and equipping the country with a workforce that is fit for the present and the future.”


Notes to editors

  1. For further information or to arrange an interview, please contact Dan Blows on 020 3927 2916 or email
  2. Both parts of the report are available here
  3. MillionPlus is the Association for Modern Universities in the UK, and the voice of 21st century higher education. We champion, promote and raise awareness of the essential role and impact of modern universities in the UK’s world-leading higher education sector. More information can be found at
  4. What are modern universities? Modern universities are long established centres of higher education in their communities with roots that stretch back decades, if not centuries. Many gained university title following legislation agreed by parliament in 1992. They make up almost half of the UK university sector with over a million students studying at modern universities every year.
  5. Modern universities: facts and stats