Value of a degree

The value of a degree is once again in the spotlight, with a misleading focus on immediate outcomes (Half of recent UK graduates stuck in non-graduate jobs, says ONS, 19 November), and suggestions that degrees are superfluous to many jobs – in particular nursing (Vince Cable: university degrees ‘superfluous to many jobs’, 13 November).

I strongly disagree.

With regards to nursing, I have worked in health and academia for many years and I would highlight just how different healthcare delivery is now. We need practitioners who can problem solve, deal with the complex needs of patients, manage technologies and people, work quickly, safely and accurately under highly pressured scenarios and support effective team working. These are skills that are developed as part of higher education.

Our Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, Professor Paul Gough, was featured on Radio 4’s You and Yours programme yesterday challenging more broadly the very misleading assertions we have been hearing about the value of a degree today.

University is not just about preparing students for the immediate workplace. It is about ensuring that our students can engage and flourish in a rapidly changing world, where knowledge and understanding are at a premium, in what is an information rich environment.

Our economy in the UK is increasingly knowledge-based. As Libby Hackett, CEO of University Alliance recently commented, OECD data shows that we will need more, not fewer, highly skilled graduates to meet the future demands of our economy. Of new jobs created between now and 2025, 80% are predicted to be at graduate level.

There can be no doubt that change will continue at pace, based on technologies that are beyond our current imagination and creating jobs that we have not yet thought of. The adaptability and agility that our graduates develop through their university experience is highly sought after – and crucial to patterns of economic growth and social development in the UK. They need to be life-long learners, able to engage with and apply different types of knowledge as they need it throughout their lives.

At UWE Bristol, we focus on preparing our students for this environment through our real-world approach, and the many opportunities we offer for our students to apply ideas in the workplace and make contacts with employers. We focus not only on using cutting edge case studies to engage with complex theoretical concepts but also:

  • Using advanced simulations of real-life scenarios
  • Running one of the largest paid undergraduate internship schemes in the UK
  • Linking students into ‘live’ projects with communities and business
  • Professional one-to-one careers support
  • Innovative and high quality employer-engaged courses

Degrees are changing. Our new ‘Team Entrepreneurship’ is an excellent example of a new approach to studying and learning about business, where students set up and run their own team company that will earn money finding and completing real projects for real organisations.

And our approach pays off. At UWE Bristol we are very proud of the success of our students, being the 6th best university for employability and 2nd best for the value-added we bring to our students.

We need to bring these opportunities to more not fewer students. The premium for graduate skills will only continue to rise in the future, given the shape of our future workforce. We need to support more people to be the agile lifelong learners that our economy and society need for the future.

Visit from Number 10

Today I was very pleased to welcome Chris Lockwood, Deputy Head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, to UWE Bristol and share with him our ambitious plans for the future and some of the fantastic research insights and opportunities we are generating. Chris was impressed with our developments in robotics and biosensing, and our role in driving regional economic growth. We also discussed the University Alliance’s Uni_Funding project and options to create a more sustainable funding system that can support the growth that we need in the UK HE sector.

Innovation driving patient care

Earlier this week at UWE Bristol we looked into the future – focusing on innovation in healthcare at a one-day conference organised by Health Education South West, the Royal Society of Medicine and Bristol Robotics Laboratory. In particular we considered the critical issue of how we keep pace with the ever increasing demand from our ageing population.

The good news is we are generally living longer! But that means the increased possibility of developing long term conditions or complex co-morbidity – and this costs money! It isn’t helped by our current focus on the ‘tip of the iceberg’ – treating those that are ill rather than keeping more people healthy and independent for longer so that they don’t, in effect, clog up our health care system.

So what is the answer?

Robotics, remote care and telemedicine certainly offer some interesting solutions that will help shape the future of healthcare.  

At the conference we sped into the future and looked at surgical robots – exploring the world of haptics. Whilst a surgeon’s eyes, hands and touch work together to explore a surgical site and tissues, when using robotic surgical instruments you have no haptic feedback – you’ve lost the sense of touch. Researchers at UWE Bristol are looking to develop robots that can feed back to surgeons what they are feeling – e.g. resistance, size and texture of tissues.

Of course whilst surgical robots are fascinating the real advances that can reach significant numbers of patients are in telemedicine, telehealth and telecare. We must find solutions to the chronic problems we see in A&E. We need to ensure we are creating safe environments for more patients to self-manage at home. The costs of delivering the service – £0.013p to assess digitally, against £25 to get a GP and £500 to get an ambulance! The technology is not the issue – it is the selection of patients, clarity of case management and care pathways that are critical to success.

We need to better engage with what citizens are looking for and how they are prepared to participate in the changes required.

We have to learn quickly and integrate, adopt and spread best practice much faster than we have done in the past.

Our patients are often faster than the clinicians treating them. The power of global patient networks is, as yet, untapped. The influence that such networks can have is great, but we have to learn to use them more powerfully.

Demand for healthcare is increasing and budgets are reducing in real terms. We also have a diminishing workforce. In this context it is even more critical that we design our services and systems for the future – instead of focusing on solving the problems of the past or present.

We have to change, be less precious about how things are now and open our minds to adopting different practice and different care pathways. Doing more of the same harder and faster simply will not work!

I hope the work of UWE Bristol and the Academic Health Science Network will lift heads, challenge and create novel solutions, implement and spread what is best for our patients – and importantly, we have to stop the political ping-pong game we have with health.