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.

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?

The Entrepreneurial University

Excellent inaugural lecture last night by UWE Bristol’s Professor Dylan Jones-Evans, who I am very pleased to welcome to the University.

Dylan explored questions such as what it means to be an entrepreneurial university, what are the main barriers and how can we do more to nurture the enterprising and entrepreneurial graduates that are critical to our country’s economic growth and social development.

With the majority of new jobs being created by companies under five years old, we can see why this is so important. But this isn’t just about creating entrepreneurs – it is much bigger than that. It is about nurturing an ‘entrepreneurial mindset’. We know that graduates are entering a rapidly changing world, where technologies beyond our current imagination, are creating jobs that we have not even thought of yet. In this environment, all graduates will need to demonstrate the enterprising attributes that Dylan spoke of – such as being action-oriented, persistent, self-determined and agile.

This is a key part of UWE Bristol’s Strategy 2020 and what it means to be a UWE Bristol graduate. Making this the lived experience for all our students is a major priority for this University.

I look forward to working with Dylan, colleagues across the University, businesses and organisations as we really drive the enterprise agenda forward, from what is a very strong base. Our innovation networks have already supported over 700 SMEs, the Graduate Talent West portal provides access to our 6,000 graduates each year (led by UWE Bristol with Business West, the LEP and other universities in the region), we run one of the largest paid internship programmes in the country, and 47% of our expenditure is with SMEs (above the government’s target of 25% for the public sector).

As Dylan stressed, this isn’t about universities working on their own. It is about universities working with businesses, local and regional organisations, and policy makers to create the experiences and rich environments where ideas and innovations can flourish.

Today, I am very pleased to say we have moved a major step further, winning funding to set up one of four ‘University Enterprise Zones’ to be supported by BIS, providing a business ‘hatchery’, incubation and grow on space for businesses specialised in robotics, biosciences, biomedicine and other high tech areas. The Zone is expected to generate over 500 new jobs, and more than £50m for the local economy.  It has been developed in collaboration with the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership and the University of Bristol with strong support from South Gloucestershire Council, the University of Bath and the West of England Academic Heath Science Network. 

The world we are living in is changing a pace. Collaboration, enterprise and an ‘entrepreneurial mindset’ are essential – and right at the forefront of our thinking at UWE Bristol.

The most important investment we can make

Investment in education is the most important investment we can make.

That was one of the main messages delivered by John Cridland CBE, Director-General of the CBI, at our annual Bolland lecture this week.

He also stressed the importance of business-university collaborations, suggesting it should be natural for any business to ‘twin’ with its university, praising UWE Bristol’s achievements as an entrepreneurial university.

He was particularly impressed with the calibre of our students on our BA Business (Team Entrepreneurship) and the innovative approach we have taken, which sees students learn by setting-up and running their own team company that will earn money finding and completing real projects for real organisations. Students from the programme have already been to the Houses of Parliament twice in the last four months, invited to provide evidence to government on future leaders and entrepreneurship.

Only last month, we saw our entrepreneurial students launch a crowdfunding campaign to bring to market an innovative 3D printer accessory. OmniDynamics smashed their target on kickstarter in less than 24 hours and have attracted some serious coverage in the technology world.

We also discussed our strong engagement with the thriving SME sector in the Bristol city region, through leading regional innovation networks in key growth sectors, running our £4m innovation for growth programme, and of course through the placements, project work, internships, and the highly skilled talent pipeline our students provide. UWE Bristol already has one of the largest paid internship programmes in the higher education sector – run largely with SMEs – we offer Enterprise Internships to support our students to become the entrepreneurs of the future, and earlier this month we launched our Green Internships which will help businesses to develop green policies and practices. Many of these initiatives are thanks to our award winning Employability and Enterprise Service, which was recognised earlier this year as the best in the sector at the NUE awards.  

Our plans for the future are ambitious. Earlier this month we were one of only 20 universities in the UK to be awarded the Small Business Charter, which not only recognises the enormous amount of work we already do with small businesses in the region, but also means that we can access funds to increase our support for business growth.

But most importantly, UWE Bristol boasts one of the most impressive employment records in the higher education sector, being recognised by the Telegraph as one of the top 8 universities to go to for getting a job. That means working successfully with employers and business to widen the reach of transformational opportunities to maximise the potential of individuals, so they can realise their ambitions – as business leader, entrepreneur, practitioner and professional – which of course also brings huge benefits right across our society.

Fostering student innovation and entrepreneurship

What role do universities play in fostering student innovation and entrepreneurship? That was one of the questions posed to our panel today at the annual Guardian Forum event. This is a critical agenda – our capacity for innovation will be key to our overall competitiveness and productivity in the UK, as much of the Western world enters into a period of economic recovery. 

We already know that 80% of new jobs are in high-skill areas, placing universities and our graduates at the heart of the future workforce.

But, it will be the innovation and enterprise aptitude of our graduates that will be most central to the UK’s success. It will be how we exploit new technologies – such as graphene, composite materials, or the use of robotics – that will determine our future.

This is one area where there is a clear cross-party consensus! But we need to push this further – to ensure that our ideas of a successful graduate outcome, and those of the government and the public, are not constrained to securing a traditional ‘graduate job’.

Clearly as a sector, there is a differing emphasis placed on this across universities. And there are a variety of interesting ideas out there that will be more relevant or practical to some institutions rather than others – such as having a venture capital fund to invest in student start-ups, or using crowd-sourcing technology to engage partners and identify where to invest.

At UWE Bristol we are ideally placed as a regional hub for innovation and enterprise. We are located in a thriving and ambitious city-region, with a LEP that has been credited as the best in the country.

Whilst many universities can point to incubator spaces, enterprise internships and funding, student enterprise societies (at UWE Bristol – UWE InnovEnters and Enactus), workshops and masterclasses, and one-to-one advice, it is in embedding enterprise activity into the curriculum where the real wins can be made.

This year at UWE Bristol we introduced an exceptionally innovative new programme – Business (Team Entrepreneurship) – which challenges traditional ideas about a degree. Students work in a high-tech hub rather than a classroom, they have coaching sessions and workshops rather than compulsory lectures – and it is running a real business that drives the students’ learning.

The students love the programme. It has inspired and engaged those that might have previously been put off by the traditional format of many university courses. And already, some of our students have been to parliament to contribute to a report on future leaders and entrepreneurship. This is a great model that we are learning from across the University.

Indeed, I think it prompts us all to consider how we best foster the entrepreneurial spirit in our students – after all they are the leaders and shapers of the future.

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.