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Journey to a Million: How essential skills will help prepare future graduates for success

We are delighted to have contributed to UCAS’ essay collection, the ‘Journey to a Million’. It collects a wide range of expert views on how the higher education sector will need to respond to meet the needs of the million graduates a year expected by 2030.

Since we submitted our essay, ‘How can we best prepare the Million for a rapidly evolving job market?’, we have released the Essential Skills Tracker 2023. This new research, available in full on our website, finds even more evidence that essential skills are a crucial ingredient of a successful education that leads to fulfilment in work.

Skills portfolio

This year’s research examines further compelling evidence that higher levels of essential skills are strongly linked to improved life outcomes, such as income, employment, well-being, and job satisfaction. But for the first time we were able to estimate just how much low levels of essential skills costs the UK every year – £22.2bn. Compared to costs of £28.9bn for low numeracy, and £7.8bn for low literacy, it’s clear that essential skills are as important as basic skills when it comes to steering the UK towards a prosperous future. 

And, for the first time, we also found evidence that essential skills support the effective development and exploitation of other skills at an individual level. Essential skills are the glue that holds an effective portfolio of skills together. Only those with higher levels of essential skills are more likely to value all other skills more highly, whether or not they already have them. The evidence also suggests that this isn’t a zero-sum game. Benefits yielded by high essential skills do not come at the expense of those yielded by other skills – indeed, they are compounded.

Defining the skills trap

Cluster analysis – a machine learning technique that “discovers” common groups of traits amongst those in the sample – sheds light on the skills trap. We find significant numbers held back by a lack of essential skills, even amongst those who, on paper, have a good education and show decent levels of basic skills. There is also evidence that essential skills can compensate for a lack of other advantages, whether skills or social background.

The missing piece

Reflecting on the Journey to a Million with this new evidence, we have even more conviction that those leaving the education system without a solid grounding in essential skills are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to achieving their potential. Apart from the growing body of evidence linking essential skills to life outcomes, that’s because we have for the first time been able to quantify the difference essential skills make.

Our data show that even with a high level of education and basic skills, those with lower essential skills are likely to earn less than their peers, and be much less satisfied in work and life. Conversely, those with low levels of education and basic skills, but with high levels of essential skills, end up in a much better place than otherwise similar individuals.

Higher education has the potential to improve the life outcomes of an unprecedented number of future graduates. But to realise that potential, higher education must ensure that graduates leave with all the skills they need to succeed. Only with the right grounding in essential skills will graduates have the best chance of converting their hard-earned qualifications into fulfilling, rewarding careers.

Universities and HEIs have many opportunities for potential, existing and future graduates to develop essential skills to give them the best possible outcomes post-graduation and beyond. Our work with current HEI partners is wide ranging across departments and services, including:

  • Setting essential skill development targets for mentors and mentees on mentoring programmes
  • Working with departments to map essential skills to industry-focused degrees
  • Tracking essential skill development during work placements, using our online self-assessment tool, Benchmark
  • Embedding the essential skills into Outreach and Widening Participation provision to help prospective students recognise their strengths and areas of development.

Higher education institutions interested in learning more about how we can work together should contact Joella Lynch, Education Associate for Higher Education at