Clear progression pathways critical to meet demand for higher skills

Today we see the launch of the Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education. I was very pleased to be a member of the panel advising ministers on this important agenda and strongly support its conclusions.

As the report states, there are serious problems with our current system for technical education and these problems continue to present us with a productivity gap that is holding the UK back.

We know that, ‘by 2020, the UK is predicted to rank just 28th of 33 OECD countries in terms of developing intermediate skills. Furthermore the size of the post-secondary technical education sector in England is extremely small by international standards.’ This is very worrying.

Indeed, our current system for technical education is over-complex and often fails to support the development of the skills our economy needs for the future. The system fails to open up the opportunities our young people deserve, and instead often does the opposite, by closing doors.

The report notes that without urgent action, the UK will fall even further behind its competitors. We need to take action to reform technical education to ensure it is aligned to the skills that industry needs for the future. But we also need to take critical steps to really break down the false divide between academic and technical/professional education pathways. Whilst both routes are different and need to have clear progression pathways, movement between the two needs to be available and absolutely clear to learners. It is not right to cut off movement to university undergraduate study to those on technical pathways, just as it is not right to cut off direct movement into skilled employment for those taking A-Levels.

The report therefore recommends that the Government incentivises the development of short, flexible bridging provision to enable individuals to move, in either direction, between the academic and technical education options and to support adults returning to study.

Without this, we are putting in additional barriers to the success of individuals and to our broader economy. We cannot afford for this to happen. There are multiple pathways to higher levels skills. Each need to be celebrated and the whole system needs to work together as holistic offer.

All young people need to be prepared to maximise their potential as they contribute to society and the economy. Our job is to make sure the options available are clear, with different pathways that work to the strengths and talents of individuals. Everyone deserves the opportunity to progress to the highest skills levels. The recommendations in this report are a very important step in achieving this goal.

The role of universities is changing – we can’t just focus on academia

A new wave of students will be graduating over the next few weeks.  They’ll be attending award ceremonies knowing they face a challenging future, entering the workplace at a time of turmoil and upheaval.

But, as the country struggles to resolve its relationship with the EU, one thing we know for sure is that improving UK productivity and competitiveness is now more important than ever.   And that depends on graduates with the right skills and mindset to compete in the high-tech global knowledge economy.

To succeed, the UK needs a talent revolution.  We are going to need over 100,000 new professional scientists, engineers and technologists each year until 2020. We know that 80 per cent of new jobs are in high-skill areas, placing universities and our graduates at the heart of the future workforce.

This week, the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) brought out its annual UK graduate employability figures. The results revealed that 71 per cent of graduates were employed in professional occupations within sixth months of graduating.

When we look at areas with skills shortages, like allied health professions (nursing) and engineering and technology, the figures are 94 per cent and 84 per cent respectively.

But this only tells half the story. As universities, we must ensure that students have the underpinning knowledge that is then applied in practice.

We have to provide an environment where they can use their knowledge in a way that will help them in a work place setting. It is about developing flexible, creative, well rounded individuals.

Increasingly it’s not good enough just to have the knowledge, you have to be able to apply it in different contexts. We need to equip graduates with the right skills and mindset to drive growth and productivity.  Our role is to teach not just the functional skills, but focus on real world learning experiences that allow them to be adaptable, enterprising and ready for work.

As universities, we can’t do this in isolation.  We need to collaborate with business, the public sector and government to map skill shortages, develop courses and provide internships and work placement opportunities.  Universities need to do more to give students real work place opportunities.

This has led to collaboration with SMEs, industry and the health sector to address the shortage of graduates with specific skills required both nationally and regionally.

Skills mapping has enabled our university to create and expand courses and focus more effectively on particular specialisms.  Over the last four years, we have doubled the number of engineering graduates we train and have introduced subjects such as a new forensic computing course to meet the demand for experts in computer crime and cyber security.

From research and innovation to mapping the skills of the future, it will be progressive, collaborative universities that will fulfill their role as key drivers of our country’s productivity and economic growth.

Whatever the future holds for post-Brexit Britain, graduates will require adaptable, transferable talents such as complex problem-solving, entrepreneurialism and emotional intelligence.

The move should be away from teaching purely functional skills that are outdated almost as soon as they are learned, to focus on real-world learning experiences.

The new generation of graduates need a flexibility of mind that will enable them to cope with uncertainty to make informed decisions and actions.

This way we can we serve the needs of young people and provide great career opportunities, even though many of them would have preferred to stay in the EU. That’s what I think universities are now for.

As published by The Telegraph 2July 2016

To accompany the HESA figures, UWE Bristol has launched ‘The Role Of Progressive Universities In The Global Knowledge Economy’. The report calls on universities to forge closer links with business to bridge the skills gap and increase UK productivity.

Building bridges post EU referendum

As we have seen, the British public yesterday voted to leave the European Union.

This will make Britain the first country to leave the EU since its formation.

As a University, we will continue to closely monitor the implications of this decision as they unfold.

Universities UK have advised that there will not be any immediate material change to the UK university sector’s participation in EU programmes such as Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+, nor to the immigration status of current and prospective EU students and staff – whose contribution to our University and society we are exceptionally proud of. I want to reassure all that UWE Bristol values their commitment and contribution towards creating a university that is inclusive and forward thinking.

We are also highly aware of the challenges the referendum has surfaced in terms of social cohesion, tolerance and diversity across the UK. As a country, we need to work together through this period of social and political instability, to rebuild and heal the divisions.

For UWE Bristol, we are a strong, diverse and multicultural community, proud to unite around our motto of Light, Liberty and Learning. As we move forward we will stay true to our purpose and values, as the new future for the UK in the global economy emerges.

Building healthy cities: the role of universities

It is no secret that the National Health Service is under immense pressure. An ageing and expanding population, combined with increases in chronic illness and multiple disorders, is placing strain on services and pushing up costs. There is a gap between spending and demand. Yet to meet the Government’s expectations, NHS England must make savings of £22 billion by 2020. At the same time local authority funding continues to be squeezed, as an area of unprotected spending, with implications for public health and social care. A perfect storm is heading our way unless we can find innovative ways of improving the health of our nation quickly, reducing the demand on our already stretched services.

In response, health leaders are having to work smarter and more creatively, harnessing technology where possible, to achieve efficiency and productivity gains. They are also shifting the focus of services towards prevention, rather than cure, to relieve pressure on services. This means addressing public health challenges like obesity at source instead of dealing with the higher costs of medical and surgical interventions down the line.

How well this is working in practice will vary across the country. But it is possible to observe some good examples of the NHS and local government working effectively with others to promote health and wellbeing. The crucial part about this is the “working with others” – because that is the only way to achieve impact on the scale required. In a new report from University Alliance, the first in our four-part Regional Leadership series, we examine the contribution of universities.

As the main suppliers of doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, health scientists and social workers, universities have long been instrumental in health and social care policy and planning. Collectively, we turn out a vast volume of health relevant research and innovation and are responsible for many of the lifesaving technologies used in clinical settings. But less acknowledged, perhaps, is the contribution universities make as anchor institutions within local health economies.

In this unique role, universities are able to unite the complex array of organisations that make up the ‘health ecosystem’ within a city or city region. They can then help to make health and wellbeing provision more efficient and more responsive to the needs of the surrounding population. In Bristol, where my institution UWE is situated, there are positive signs of this happening. Through Bristol Health Partners, for example, the city’s universities have joined forces with providers and commissioners as well as Bristol City Council to integrate provision and improve health and wellbeing through innovation, research, adoption and spread.

Our report also identifies how the research capacity of universities is being harnessed to produce healthier communities. The scope of this activity is exceptionally broad, covering everything from applied clinical medicine, to studies on improving the urban environment through effective planning, to the development of robots that enhance patient care or assist those with permanent health conditions.

Because of the cross-cutting nature of health and wellbeing challenges, there is a growing volume of interdisciplinary research at UK universities. Many institutions also work closely with non-academic partners including businesses, charities and social enterprises.  Incubation spaces on campus enable entrepreneurs to design products and innovate with the support of specialists at the university. This type of engagement will be further enhanced by the soon-to-be-opened University Enterprise Zones like the one at UWE which will focus around MedTech, Robotics and Autonomous Systems.

Finally, university research and innovation and the funding that enables it has the added benefit of supporting local services. Clinical research, for example, will often involve observing and trialling treatments with patients in a local hospital. From the perspective of providers and commissioners, this represents an investment additional to that coming directly from government. Similarly, university-based health academics are often specialists within a particular field of medicine, surgery or other health-related discipline. Through what is effectively a joint appointment with the NHS, their contribution is essential for maintaining the quality of clinical services in the region.

The health challenges Britain faces are multifarious, and it be would be disingenuous to suggest that universities hold all the answers. However, as this exercise proves, universities can and do make significant contributions to the well-being of surrounding populations. They are also major employers and influencers. Our staff and student populations are significant and many universities are working hard to create healthy working and living environments for staff and students alike.

The Healthy University movement is spearheading work-based health living approaches to improve the physical and mental health and well-being of university communities and importantly playing a part in spurring behavioural change in generations to come through education and action. At a time when the NHS and local government are becoming increasingly overstretched, the significance of universities in this space is likely to grow.

As published on WonkHE 25 February 2016 

Health Education – Managing the Risks

We have now had two weeks to reflect on the Government’s Green Paper, ‘Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’, published on the 6th November.

The Government’s recognition of the vital role universities play in driving economic growth and boosting productivity in the UK was of course very welcome. As a University that places a strong emphasis on widening participation and the employability of our graduates, the paper’s focus on these key areas was again positively received.

The changes set out for consultation will certainly have a significant impact across the higher education sector over the coming years.

However, it is important to note that much of the detail was not included in the paper. As always, this will be where the interest lies. I look forward to working with the Government over the coming months as this develops.

In contrast to the Green Paper, the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) sets out quite specific changes that will have a major impact on nursing and allied health provision.

The changes announced today are welcome, however given the potential implications on the shape of the future nursing and healthcare workforce, it is absolutely critical that we recognise and mitigate the significant risks that arise whenever there is major reform and change.

Changes to student funding

We learnt today that instead of continuing to be funded to study by the Department for Health, nursing, midwifery and allied health students will, from 2017/18, be treated the same as all other degree students, funding their studies by taking out fee and maintenance loans through the Student Loan Company. The financial rationale for the changes is of course clear and it is positive that the artificial cap on student numbers for nursing will be lifted through this change, increasing the training places available (the change in funding arrangements means student numbers will no-longer be controlled by the NHS). There are, however, very significant risks that will need to be worked through as this major change is implemented.

Maintaining quality 

In particular, as the future nursing and healthcare workforce is opened up to market forces, close attention will need to be paid to ensuring that the profession is sufficiently diverse and attractive to encourage students to want to study in these areas. This is essential if we are to achieve the required increase in workforce numbers forecast by the NHS, whilst maintaining the quality of applicants. The profession needs to attract candidates with the right qualifications, attributes, motivations and values for healthcare practice, supported by high quality education, meeting the standards and requirements for registration through degree award.

In relation to the latter point, as we move to the new arrangements proposed today, it will be essential that a sufficient number of quality work placements are available to support students to develop the skills, knowledge and attributes required of graduate practitioners delivering high quality patient care. In this field real and simulated practice is vital.

Improving retention

We know that the retention of staff has been a big problem for the NHS for some time. The skilled workforce has often been lured away by the private sector or temporary staffing agencies – who are perversely capitalising on shortfalls in NHS staffing. Often this can happen just a few years after graduating. Clearly this places a huge burden on NHS finances – with a limited return on investment. 

In light of the above, there is a major opportunity for the government to support the NHS by offering some sort of incentive on the loans for graduates on condition that they stay and work within the NHS for a defined period of time. This approach would ensure the investment via the Student Loans Company is retained within the NHS and the public sector and would recognise the significant public service and benefit delivered by health and social care practitioners.

 

Preventing skill shortages

We know from data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) that over the last 10 years the numbers of over 26 year olds studying at university has declined by 23%. The University and Colleges Admissions Service also showed that mature students, were deterred when £9k fees were introduced in 2012; seeing a drop of 5% of over 21s in that year. We also know that four in ten mature students come from disadvantaged or low participation backgrounds. It is these mature students that make up some 60% of the nursing cohort. It is absolutely critical that we don’t accelerate the decline in mature students and lose this talent and numbers from the future workforce. This is a big risk for us all and we must build in appropriate safeguards and explain the changes very carefully to potential students. 

This challenge is particularly pronounced in specialist areas, which are often less attractive to 18 year old students. For example, at the University of the West of England we have been able to meet key skill gaps in vital NHS services where it has traditionally been difficult to recruit – like mental health, radiotherapy and learning disabilities – by appealing to mature students, who may also have caring responsibilities. Yet, past experience shows that these are the potential students who are most likely to be put off by the changes that are emerging.

It is clearly essential that we work together to create the right conditions to recruit and retain the very best students we can for the future nursing and healthcare workforce. We need to ensure prospective students understand the changes and the benefits of the new funding approach. It is clear that if we are to meet the additional 10,000 nurses required over the course of this parliament, universities, healthcare providers, commissioners and government are going to need to work together in innovative and creative ways to recruit, retain and energise the future workforce.

The NHS needs a strong, capable and committed workforce to sustain it through the challenges ahead, as demands for healthcare and cost pressures continue to grow. We need to recognise the public value and public good delivered by the nursing and healthcare profession. Importantly, as these changes are implemented we need to be very alive to the risks, redoubling our efforts to make the profession as attractive as possible so we pull in the talented individuals that make the NHS the celebrated institution that it is – which ultimately serves to benefit us all.

A false divide

This week we have seen two reports published focusing on how we best meet the skills needs of our economy. One from Policy Exchange on improving higher level professional and technical education, and one from OFSTED finding that not enough apprenticeships are providing advanced, professional skills in the sectors that need them most.

Whilst there is much to commend in each report – in particular Sir Michael’s calls for employers to be engaged with schools and the need for apprenticeships to deliver professional and up-to-date skills in sectors that need them most – both fall into the dangerous trap of framing their arguments based on a vocational versus academic divide. This is a highly outdated approach that is in no way representative of the educational landscape we are operating in.

Using these sorts of redundant notions is highly dangerous. If they are allowed to grow and progress to inform policy decisions, we frankly will not reach the outcomes that will best serve the needs of our economy and society.

Granted we are in a period building up to a Comprehensive Spending Review so it is not surprising that we are seeing this sort of stance being taken. But we have a responsibility to make sure that what we are asking for is in the best interests of learners, their families and our economy and society as a whole.

Nowadays it is simply not the case of taking young people down an either or route of vocational versus academic education. If we are to meet the increasing demand for higher-level skills in our economy we need to embrace and enhance the multiple pathways through education, based on collaboration and partnership. It is critical that we take a holistic approach across the educational landscape, understanding how the different elements interact and are co-dependent to boost our economy.

At UWE Bristol for example, we have very well-established and long-running partnerships with FE colleges and schools in the region and were a significant partner in setting up the first University Technical College in the South West, the Bristol Technology and Engineering Academy – with City of Bristol College and supported by Rolls Royce, Airbus and GKN Aerospace. Our approach to matching skill shortages to demand from students in this way has seen us double the number of our engineering students over the last four years. A move very much welcomed by local employers like Airbus and GE Aviation, and their supply chains, which at the same time has given the University a near 100% record of employment for its students.

We are also very engaged with developments in the area of Higher-Level Apprenticeships, working with Weston College and the City of Bristol College in Aerospace and Healthcare Science, directly addressing current and future skills needs.
We know we are seeing a growth in jobs requiring higher-level skills. To reach this level involves the development of both knowledge and skills. One without the other doesn’t work. We are working in a rapidly changing environment. Employees need to be able to able to understand, adapt and apply the knowledge and skills they have gained to new situations.

What we need to talk about is progressing students, not about an either or of FE, apprenticeships or HE. We need to ensure young people are given the opportunities to be the best they can be – so they can excel and realise their ambitions in our rapidly changing economy.

Longitudinal data again shows high value of a degree

Figures published today by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) again underline the long term value of a degree, with less than 3% of graduates unemployed three and half years after graduation and a rising graduate salary profile.

This follows on from earlier graduate employment figures from HESA back in June illustrating UWE’s own strong employment performance just 6 months after graduation.

The HESA data is an extremely important source for policy makers and professional bodies as we consider the best options and pathways for our young people, in order for them to maximise their potential and boost economic growth in the UK – where an additional 2 million jobs will require higher level skills by 2022.

The contribution our students and graduates have is clearly more than economic, but it is pleasing to see this more longitudinal measure of success.

Graduates are key to a global knowledge economy

The CIPD report published this week, Over-qualification and skills mismatch in the graduate labour market, is extremely shortsighted and dangerous in its assumptions.

If the UK is to build a strong economic future around a knowledge based high tech economy it will require an increasing number of highly skilled graduates and technicians. The CBI in their report Better off Britain forecasted that by 2022 half of all jobs will require workers to have completed some form of higher education at Level 4 or above.

We see regular warnings of skills shortages across the different sectors of our economy. For example, the Perkins Review, in reference to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s report on “Jobs and Growth”, forecasted that between 2012 and 2020, the UK economy will require over 100,000 new professional scientists, engineers and technologists each year. A large number of these will need to be graduates from higher education, yet as a sector we produce nowhere near this figure.

The CIPD survey itself is based on old data – the European Social Survey of 2010. But UK higher education has changed significantly since then – both in terms of the programmes on offer and the opportunities available to students. In my view, it is critical that we base such important claims, as made in the CIPD report, on much more relevant data and that we understand the limitations of the sources we use. The Higher Education Statistics Agency for example, with their 443,110 graduate sample and use of Office of National Statistics classification of professional jobs, provides a much more reliable basis for assessing graduate performance.  But even then we have to recognise this is limited to measuring the jobs of graduates just 6 months out of university.

Clearly universities need to support students to match their career aspirations to both current and future jobs opportunities. Many universities are working very closely with employers to ensure this is achieved and that we are preparing students for a successful future – whether through programmes co-designed with employers, project and placement work, internships, guest lectures from industry professionals or the use of virtual learning environments.

Many of our graduates are going on to fulfil the professional roles that shape our lives and those of our families, such as teachers, healthcare practitioners, nurses, social workers, lawyers, engineers, architects, planners, accountants and business professionals, computer analysts and creative industry professionals. Others become the entrepreneurs and innovators that our economy badly needs.

During an economic downturn I do recognise that graduates may well be in jobs that are classified as ‘non-graduate’. But it is still graduates who are being employed in preference to non-graduates. This is because employers recognise that graduates offer more potential.

Surely we want our young people to be the best they can? Let’s not put them off by headlines based old data and by focusing on narrow definitions of graduate employment. We have to look to their medium and long-term futures and their ability to adapt and thrive in a fast changing global knowledge based economy. Whilst the value of a degree is a hugely important topic to be discussed and debated (see blog post November 2013), the misleading focus on immediate outcomes is far too simplistic and does not lead to the policy options we need to increase our competitiveness as a country.

I’m afraid the idea of limiting the number of graduates when the rest of the developing world is expanding is a completely ridiculous argument. How far behind do we want the UK to fall in the global knowledge economy?

100% Student Satisfaction

Fifteen UWE Bristol programmes have performed outstandingly in the National Student Survey 2015, achieving the maximum possible score. A further 29 have scored exceptionally high at above 90%.

Feedback from our students is hugely important to us and helps shape the real world learning opportunities that we provide. Student feedback, alongside working with employers and professional bodies, ensures that the design of our programmes, opportunities and ways of learning are truly engaging and really prepare our students to thrive in the global knowledge economy.

Having our students rate their experience so highly is an excellent achievement and a real credit to these programme teams. It reflects the energy, commitment and innovation that they have applied to make their programmes truly outstanding. Congratulations to all those involved. Those scoring the full 100% are:

  • Art and Visual Culture
  • Business and Human Resource Management
  • Marketing Communications
  • Architecture and Planning
  • Creative Product Design
  • Product Design Technology
  • Information Technology Management for Business
  • Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Climate Change and Energy Management
  • Mathematics
  • Aerospace Engineering (Design)
  • Diagnostic Imaging
  • International Relations
  • Politics
  • Public and Environmental Health

It is fantastic that the best practice across these programmes has been recognised by our students.

An Active City is a Competitive City

Cities are competing in a global knowledge economy. 

With the greater mobility of business and labour, the personal choices and lifestyle preferences of highly skilled workers are increasingly important in order to compete. 

Employers are having to be much more strategic as they attempt to win over employees. Quality of life is one major factor. This involves not just how employers treat their staff and adapt their working environments, but also the broader lifestyle offer that can be accessed by employees based on their location. The quality of life that can be achieved is therefore growing significantly in terms of the impact it is having on the location decisions of business. 

Having experienced other parts of the UK throughout my career, I know that Bristol offers an attractive lifestyle. Recognised as the best place to live in the UK and as one of the UK’s core cities, it is no surprise then that in addition to the high-tech engineering companies, biosciences, and legal and financial services, the highly mobile and innovative creative and technology industries have also decided to base themselves here in the West. 

Whether that has been down to the environment on offer or the mindset and talent pool generated by our universities and businesses, we know we face challenges for the future if we are to maintain and advance our competitive position.  

Quality of life is key. Bristol is doing well for green spaces, walking and cycling (for those in the inner centre of the city), but less well on skills, schools and family living spaces, and falling down badly on high car use and poor supporting infrastructure. This is mainly down to a lack of decent joint working, short-sighted planning and poor delivery across the city and extended city-region. Transport is the obvious one – which the Mayor and others are working on – but equally housing, health and education are hugely important. 

An active city with great living and easy access to where you work must be our goal. 

If we get it right in Bristol over the next few years we can create the space, infrastructure and vibrancy we need to really thrive in a competitive future. This will enable us to attract more innovative businesses and individuals, and create the high value clusters in areas we have yet to imagine, creating a virtuous circle that will drive forward Bristol’s position and reputation on the global stage.   

Achieving this involves the city-region’s leaders, citizens and employers working together to plan and shape an attractive future. 

Business has a major role in creating this environment. Business must think big, bold and broad to secure success. They need use their position and influence for place shaping, to create the best environment for both living and working. 

If we can create an efficient, affordable, green and sustainable public transport infrastructure, and create great housing to complement the cycle ways and paths to encourage health and wellbeing and connect people to the place in which they live and work – the city-region will thrive. 

As Vice-Chancellor of one of the largest universities in the country, which is part of the Healthy Universities Group (actively engaged in researching and influencing how we can deliver a step change), I know the difference health and well-being makes at an institutional level. I also know the importance of the broader environment to our staff and in attracting and retaining the talent we need to succeed. 

We need to work together and show strong collective leadership to create a true and sustained advantage in an increasingly competitive global knowledge economy – to the benefit of business, families and individuals throughout the city-region.