Supporting Greater Manchester’s path to fixing the digital divide

By Richard Zhou, Government Affairs Director Huawei Technologies

18th October 2021

The importance of technology in today’s digital society has rapidly accelerated since January 2020. As digital technology continues to open barriers to employment and growth opportunities, Huawei is delighted to support the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) to fix the digital divide across the region. As we work to “build back better” after the pandemic we need to bring everyone with us as technology opens up new opportunities for growth and employment.

Getting digital inclusion right means considering everyone from digital natives to those who might never have used the internet at all. Some people are more likely to be digitally excluded than others, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), a range of different variables – gender, age, income, education, qualifications, disabilities and location – all play a part. The ONS also found that “a lack of inclination and a lack of skills” were the most common reasons for those digitally disengaged.

Research from the University of Liverpool and the Good Things Foundation suggests that 1.2 million residents could be digitally excluded, indicating that almost half of Greater Manchester population have limited access to the opportunities brought about by digital skills, connectivity and accessibility. With c.450,000 residents ‘non-users’ of digital technology, the lack of digital inclusion has been rightly identified as a priority area of concern by the GMCA.

COVID-19’s impact

Although the number of people lacking digital skills in the UK continues to decrease, in 2015, the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) estimated that 7.9 million people will continue to lack digital skills in 2025. Analysis by the University of Cambridge echoes this, that the COVID-19 pandemic significantly widened the gap for those who lack digital skills or access to connectivity, exacerbating the challenges facing digital inclusion in the UK.

The public health crisis has undoubtedly made the impacts of digital exclusion worse for the millions of people affected. For education, COVID-19 has increased the importance of equipment for home-schooling and the delivery of connectivity. The most disadvantaged people lack the opportunities to learn new digital skills, and the pandemic is ultimately holding back potential talent and establishing further barriers for them to succeed as the nature of working and the wider economy evolves.

Greater Manchester’s digital exclusion

Following conversations with primary school head teachers working in Manchester, the University of Cambridge revealed that only a few children were engaging in the online learning set by teachers due to wi-fi being too expensive for some households.

Leading academics from the University of Manchester called for action against the growing digital divide. The University gleaned that, while a large proportion of society successfully shifted to online working, 9 million adults in the UK require support when using the internet. What’s more, a glaring North/South divide has emerged, with almost half (41%) in the North West rarely or never using the internet compared to over a third (35%) in the South East.

Greater Manchester’s combined approach

In response to the pandemic’s heightened impact upon the region, Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, established the Digital Inclusion Action Network. Aimed at supporting under-25s, over-75s and disabled people to get online, the initiative is a wonderful approach to address the gaps in support for those digitally disengaged and marginalised.

Digitally enabling businesses is also a priority for Greater Manchester, through the Digital Blueprint - seeking to ensure that businesses have access to digital tools and providers, is playing a pivotal role in upskilling workforces. This will positively contribute to the region’s growth and local economy.

Utilising industry expertise to support digital inclusion efforts

Huawei donated Pupil Packs and laptops to support Greater Manchester schools during the pandemic, through the Greater Manchester Technology Fund. However, we understand that digital exclusion goes beyond access to equipment and high-quality broadband. A lack of skills, access and education significantly widens the nation’s digital skills gap. Long lasting change is therefore required. Huawei is working with the GMCA to develop a free initiative for those in need, matching the ambitions of the region.

As a technological and engineering leader within the UK, Huawei understands that industry partnerships can further digital capabilities. As a company, we wish to ensure Greater Manchester’s economic prosperity by closing the digital divide, by finding new ways to empower the disconnected and digitally disadvantaged through programmes such as Huawei Student Developers Programme and our ICT Academy.

Aimed at under-25s who share a passion for pioneering technologies, the HSD offers participants an opportunity to expand their scope of knowledge in a dynamic peer-to-peer learning environment, through enriching training courses and activities. For Greater Manchester, Huawei’s free educational workshops aim to provide all levels of programming experience with the tangible skills local employers require. They also support the upskilling effort for those in work, to help diversify talent across the region.

“Access to digital technology is a necessity in today’s modern society world” said Victor Zhang, Vice President Huawei, “we remain determined to support Greater Manchester in enabling the availability of opportunities, tools, and skills for individuals to reach their full potential.

As a result of the continuous evolution of technology and increasing demands for multi-skilled engineers, the ICT sector is ever-changing. The not-for-profit Huawei ICT Academy aims to provide free learning resources and simulation tools for teachers and students. With the necessary training and skills required for employment in the sector, the ICT Academy encourages young people to take advantage of opportunities in Manchester. To date, the ICT Academy has partnered with dozens of higher educational institutions in the UK, providing nine courses as well as offering free training courses and materials that tutors can use with their students.

Huawei has rolled out its skills programmes in over 1500 schools around the world, benefiting more than 60,000 teachers and students, supporting the creation and development of highly relevant, employable skills.

Long lasting digital inclusion

Through not only our world-leading digital programmes, but also Huawei’s pledge to provide the digital infrastructure needed for businesses to thrive and grow, Greater Manchester’s digital transformation into the UK’s leading digital city region is well underway.

Huawei is committed to furthering this effort by continuing to support teachers and students through dedicated education and skills initiatives and providing fundamental connectivity, which broadens access to digital learning.

We’ll continue to support the GMCA’s initiatives as the region recovers from the consequences of the pandemic. We call on all businesses at the forefront of the industry to work with institutions such as the GMCA to ensure that the UK’s digital skills gap does not become a crisis and to ensure that our opportunity to prevent this does not go to waste.

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