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.