UK lags behind the rest of the world in skills development, but has ‘competitive edge’ in certain areas, report shows

Despite investing in entrepreneurial skills such as resilience, adaptability, and risk management, commentators warn that favourable policy and culture of continuous learning is lacking

Credit: Jay Radhakrishnan, VICTOR/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

In just a year, the UK has dropped 26 places to 64th out of 100 countries in a global report looking at approaches to skills development.

Learning platform Coursera’s Global Skills Report suggested that amidst the accelerating pace of globalisation and digital transformation, the UK is not only underperforming in skills development – it’s also regressing. 

The research of more than 124 million Coursera learners, including three million in the UK, showed that learners in the UK are more likely to invest in entrepreneurial skills – such as resilience, adaptability, and risk management – and AI-related skills like artificial neural networks and machine learning algorithms.

This investment could prove to be “crucial…in overcoming the digital skills gap, particularly in light of the rapid emergence of generative AI”, Coursera said.

However, over a third (34 per cent) of respondents cited a lack of skilled personnel as a “significant challenge”, underlining the importance of continuous skills development.

This is where the UK struggles, according to Peter Stephenson-Wright, permanent affiliate professor of marketing at ESCP Business School in London.

When it comes to developing skills for the future, “the UK is well placed with its traditional strengths in resilience, adaptability and risk management, as reflected in the survey”, he said. “But overall, the UK lags in its approach to lifelong learning and the continuous development of new skills, which will surely be needed.”

Bernard Marr, author of Future Skills, agreed: “A culture of continuous learning ensures that individuals and organisations can adapt to evolving trends and maintain a competitive edge,” adding that “critical thinking and creativity, which drive innovative problem-solving” are equally important.

According to the CIPD’s most recent Learning at work 2023 survey report, addressing the skills gaps (25 per cent) is the top priority for L&D practitioners, but they report a lack of priority from business leaders, a lack of capacity and a lack of insight about what is needed and what is working.

For Stephenson-Wright, plugging talent gaps will take more than just teaching the fundamental skills: “Managers at every level and in every industry will need to master the ability to prompt and exploit innovation and creativity while minimising its uncertainties. This goes far beyond functional skill sets, it’s about mindset, and unlearning some of the organisational behaviour of the past.”

The Coursera data found that despite a low global ranking, the UK has a “competitive edge” in certain skill areas, which included: 

  • Human resources (57 per cent)

  • Finance (72 per cent)

  • Marketing (51 per cent),

  • Theoretical computer science (58 per cent)

  • Web development (61 per cent)

  • Databases (57 per cent)

But Giulio Nardella, associate professor of sustainability and global strategy at ESCP Business School in London, is “surprised” that the UK lags behind in many core areas needed to drive economic growth, pointing to “technically sophisticated jobs” in particular.

Marr added that digital skills and data literacy are “crucial” skills for businesses in all industries and across the world to invest in to help “navigate the complexities of the digital age and seize opportunities for growth and innovation”.

While Nardella admitted it will be an “uphill battle if the UK is to better its position in the war for global talent, at a time where there is considerable political pressure to bring immigration down”, there is much the UK can learn from other countries – including “our Asian counterparts” – when it comes to developing a future-proof skills strategy.

Evidently, eight of the top ten globally performing countries are European, Coursera found, which “points to a pressing need for the UK to reassess its skilling strategies”, it said.

Marr reiterated the importance of “international collaborations and knowledge-sharing” across borders.

“By studying successful models from countries like Singapore, the United Emirates, Germany, or Finland, the UK can gain valuable insights into effective strategies for developing a future-ready workforce. Furthermore, fostering international collaborations and knowledge-sharing can be beneficial,” he added.

Meanwhile, Nardella warned that until we ensure that our policy is favourable, it stands to reason that the UK will continue to slide down the rankings in the years to come".