U.K. Government Funds Free Online Courses Teaching Startup Skills

A tech industry-backed, U.K. government-funded initiative offering free online courses to those wanting to learn commercial digital business skills goes live today, aiming to upskill Brits to work for tech companies or even start their own startup.

The wider narrative here is of course the need to reconfigure the skills of the working population to ensure they’re fit for a more digitally focused national economy. (And create a skills bolster as automation spins up to consume certain types of jobs over the coming decades.)

The newly launched Digital Business Academy is being overseen by Tech City, working in partnership with a range of educational institutions and tech mentorship organizations — including Cambridge University Judge Business School, University College London (UCL), and Founder Centric, which in turn works with tech accelerators such as Seedcamp and others. Tech City is a publicly funded body which initially focused efforts on supporting the East London tech cluster but now generally advocates for entrepreneurship in the U.K.

“This is a platform where not only are you able to learn the latest skills in digital business but you’re also getting access to potential employers as well as partners who will help you with your idea,” said Tech City CEO Gerard Grech, discussing the launch of the Academy in an interview with TechCrunch. “It’s the next wave in how we’re seeing MOOCs [massively open online courses] evolve in providing people with opportunities as much as possible.”

At launch the Academy offers eight free online courses, covering areas such as setting up a digital business, sizing an idea, developing and managing digital products, making a marketing plan, understanding digital marketing channels and running a marketing campaign, building a brand, and grokking business finance. Courses are available to any U.K. resident and will each take between three to six weeks to complete, delivered via a mix of video, reading assignments and hands on exercises. The Academy’s online learning platform is being powered by UCL.

The entire initiative is being funded by £400,000 in public money, specifically coming out of the U.K. government Business, Innovation and Skills department’s budget. Grech said the Academy — which he dubbed a “pilot”, noting it’s badged as being in beta and will aim to tailor what it offers to the evolving needs of the U.K. tech community — has a year’s funding secured at this point.

The courses on offer deliberately eschew teaching coding skills to avoid overlapping with other education initiatives, according to Grech, who pointed out there are already several players offering coding courses. He added that the courses were formulated by Tech City and its partner organizations, factoring in feedback from the tech community on the skills most in demand from their point of view.

“When we looked at the stats and the data we felt that marketing and product development and business development were just as important as coding,” said Grech. “We felt that creating the Digital Business Academy to meet the demands of the commercial skills needed by digital businesses, especially from the entrepreneurs and CEOs that I’ve been speaking to, it’s just as important. We felt this was a great way of addressing this particular area to complement everything else that’s going on in the marketplace around coding.”

“The program lead put out a tender to various universities and in discussions with the partners we felt that those [courses] were the most appropriate to begin with,” he added. “We’re welcoming new partners for next year but those are the three we’ve started with.”

There have been more than 1,000 registrations for the courses over the six weeks since the Digital Business Academy website went live, according to Grech. He’s not putting any numbers on how many people he’s hoping will sign up in the coming year but says Tech City’s ambition is for a very broad outreach — to “democratize access to tech-related skills”, as he put it in a recent Guardian article.

That said, the initial outreach and marketing efforts for the Academy appear rather narrow, leaning heavily on the scheme’s industry partners — aka existing businesses that have agreed to put up a series of reward “opportunities” which course completers will be able to apply for, such as paid internships, mentorship opportunities, free co-working space, specialist content and free startup support such as access to loans. Tech City said there are more than 35 of these industry partners for the Academy, including the BBC, O2 Think Big, Unruly, Ogilvy Labs and Microsoft Ventures. It’s not clear how many rewards will be handed out.

“Everyone who completes a course will be eligible to apply for rewards,” said Grech, explaining how the rewards system works. “Different partners have specified different combinations of courses that participants must complete to be able to apply for the rewards. The more courses one completes, the more rewards they can apply for.

“When someone becomes eligible to apply for a reward, if they choose to apply for it they have to fill out a standard application form, and the application goes to the reward partner. The reward partner will assess whether to take it further based on the application.”

When asked specifically about its outreach efforts, and how Tech City is ensuring that less technologically savvy and less well-connected sections of society are being made aware of these free courses, Grech said Tech City is working with councils — “to see how we can get it in to colleges and also potentially Job Centers as well” — but added that the initial focus is on Academy partners as the “big endorsers”.

He later confirmed that the London Borough of Islington is one council Tech City is working with on Academy outreach, but a full strength push to promote digital upskilling at the coal face of traditional U.K. unemployment services has clearly yet to take shape.

“We’ve got quite a diverse group of partners that will help us get the message out to all their members and students and so forth,” Grech added. “We’re looking at Job Centers but first of all we need to get the platform out, we need to get partnerships in place… We’re working with one or two particular councils where we’re trying to address how to move this into a situation where it’s implemented in a different way. Because obviously the platform is an online platform. And we’re initially looking at our partners to manage the outreach.”

“This is a pilot. We’re making sure that we’re going to iterate the platform, according to user needs, and then we’ll see how else we can increase the outreach,” he added.

It’s a particular irony here that the government is fully funding a boutique set of free and highly niche educational courses, when the business of attending traditional U.K. higher education requires students to stump up ever increasing tuition fees. Tomorrow thousands of students are expected to demonstrate in Central London calling for the government to scrap university tuition fees — meanwhile a handful of commercially focused lessons in digital business skills go live online for free. Do the math.

The difference — beyond the relative cheapness of online learning vs the high costs of face-to-face tuition — is that this initiative aligns with the government’s current economic and jobs priorities, and benefits from a snug (some might say ‘cosy’) working relationship with industry players who have a need for the type of skilled staff it aims to turn out.

Is this Academy, then, an indication of how higher educational might be generally reformulated in the U.K. in future — i.e. by paying closer attention to the skills in demand from employers, and placing less emphasis on learning as a route to personal and intellectual development? (Related: Tech City’s Baroness Shields recently called for a marriage between industry and educators.)

“We’re in this situation where universities are very much used to a certain business model, which is face to face tuition. Obviously technology is disrupting many industries… I think in this respect this is a welcoming way in which skills get taught in a very scalable way across the U.K. And then obviously being able to fast track people to opportunities from the things that they learn,” said Grech, rather torturously skirting around the issue when I put this question to him.

“I think what we’re doing here is we’re looking at this space, and we had several meetings with entrepreneurs and founders. What we’re essentially trying to do is just address the gap — address the need that we’re hearing directly from the community.

“What this platform allows you to do is not only be able to learn from the courses but also be able to do exercises and assessments and be able to share that with the community. So the community can then judge your work in that respect, which is kind of pushing the model that we’ve all been used to — which is going to university and getting a qualification. What we heard from entrepreneurs and CEOs was just give me proof of what you’ve done. We’re hearing that people want to see how people have judged your work. And your coursework.”

So it remains to be seen whether the future of U.K. education — doubtless increasingly digitally delivered — will end up placing greater emphasis on demonstrable proof of work rather than on acquiring standardized qualifications, and on higher education success becoming synonymous with acquiring “commercial know-how skills” and securing a job rather than being awarded a degree, and all the individual and intellectual development achieving the latter entails.

In the meantime the Digital Business Academy has arrived with its mission to use taxpayer money to disrupt the U.K.’s paucity of digital marketers and brand builders.

“We very much have a first focus on commercial know-how skills, and enabling you to start, join or grow a digital business. We felt that’s where the need was, and that’s what we’re addressing with this,” added Grech.