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.

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.

Civic Leadership, Innovation and Economic Growth

With the run up to the General Election in May and the growing debate around devolution and cities, it was very timely to speak at the UUK Conference ‘Powering the Knowledge Economy: Universities, Cities and Innovation’ today.

We need to think broadly about how we power the knowledge economy and this is not simply limited to local economic growth. It is about much more, including public learning, civic spirit, and community-based innovation. It is also about businesses playing their role in education, community and society, and being part of, rather than outside, the civic and place-based leadership agendas.

I see a major part of my role and that of the University, as facilitating a joined up approach to problem-solving, so that we are really focusing on the key issues for the region and achieving the best outcomes, rather than simply viewing things through the lens or field in which we happen to work. The key issues of today and the future are highly complex – they cannot be addressed through one sector or sphere of society working alone.

We have some great examples of where this has really worked to bring about opportunities for the whole city-region, including the collaboration that won Bristol recognition as European Green Capital 2015. Bristol also won funding for one of the UK’s first four University Enterprise Zones, led by UWE Bristol and to be located on our Frenchay campus, which will support the next generation of companies in the areas of robotics, biosciences, biomedicine and other hi-tech areas. Both universities are also working very closely with businesses and the health sector on driving forward innovations on the assisted living agenda, diagnostics and telemedicine – particularly important for a society with an aging population and very relevant to all our lives.

This is all in addition, of course, to universities powering the knowledge economy through addressing skills shortages and providing learning opportunities that transform the futures of individuals, families, and communities. We know that 80% of new jobs will be in high-skill areas so access to opportunities and different pathways to higher skills is absolutely critical – involving collaboration across universities, educational providers, businesses, the public sector, community organisations and professional bodies.

Universities think and operate long term. They are also politically neutral and represent many sectors and sections of their locality and region. This makes them well placed to be anchors for their region – joining up across the various elements of a place, coordinating and developing the high-level opportunities and catalysts that will really shape the future. That was the focus of my speech today.

In the heated public policy debate ahead of the General Election it may be that university voices are more important than ever. Universities can and should shine a light on what is possible and lead the way by building the bridges, networks and capacity to deliver.

Higher Apprenticeships – the role of universities

The demand in our economy for high-level skills, to generate jobs and boost the UK’s global competitiveness, is in no doubt. We know that 80% of new jobs require skills at this level. This is well recognised by business leaders who are very clear about the real risk of major skills shortages across their sectors.

The question is do we have the right pathways to enable and inspire individuals to access and achieve these high-level skills?

As the recent McKinsey report, ‘Education to Employment‘, highlights, there is a lack of prestige and current ‘disorganisation’ associated with the vocational offer, across a variety of countries – not just the UK.

The economic and social imperative to address this is strong; and there is significant interest across the political parties and business organisations. Indeed, a recent article in the Economist has suggested this is leading to a ‘burst of innovation’ in vocational education.

Whilst it is great that we are applying our minds to this critical agenda, I would plea that we keep it simple and that we take a holistic approach – one that understands and maximises the value of the current offer. We need blended approaches, not separate and closed pathways, as we consider the best ways to meet the demand for high-level skills.

Today I was very pleased to speak at the Inside Government event on this topic, ‘The Future of Higher Apprenticeships 2014: Investing in Skills, Delivering Growth’, sharing our experiences in the development of Higher Apprenticeships at UWE Bristol. Higher Apprenticeships are certainly one of the ways we can work to meet the demand for high-level skills, albeit with a number of barriers to overcome, not least in terms of the investment needed from industry and challenges in terms of scalability and enabling SMEs to engage.

At UWE Bristol we have led on the development of Higher Apprenticeships in both Aerospace and Healthcare Science; as part of a successful £1.1m bid by the City of Bristol College to the Higher Apprenticeship Fund scheme in 2011. The reason the bid was successful was because we were able to offer significant expertise in this form of learning and the subject areas, a history of working in partnership across Higher and Further Education, and with employers, and the clear mapping of the proposals to the needs of the region.

At UWE Bristol we already have an extensive range of connections and networks with employers in our region and beyond, particularly with SMEs – who are absolutely at the heart of growth in the UK. For example, leading regional innovation networks, in Biosciences, Microelectronics, Green Technologies and the Creative Industries; and leading on one of four government funded ‘University Enterprise Zones’, in robotics, biosciences, biomedicine and other high tech areas, working with the Local Enterprise Partnership and the University of Bristol.

We already work with employers, and our own careers consultants, on the design of our academic programmes and opportunities, and have a number of programmes that are co-run with industry professionals – for example with the BBC in film making and broadcast production.

Last year we launched a new BA Business (Team Entrepreneurship), where running a real business drives the students’ learning, as they set-up and run their own team company that will earn money finding, and completing, real projects for real organisations. This has really engaged a group of highly talented students; some of whom would not have chosen to go to University based on the standard format of more traditional degrees.

We also have a very well established Work-Based Learning framework –which is of course key to Higher Apprenticeships.

All of this means we were well placed to get engaged with Higher Apprenticeships, and it also means we are clear about how this involvement feeds back into our broader strategy as a University – which of course is absolutely critical to success.

Earlier in the year the Times Higher Education ran a headline, ‘Universities risk missing out on higher apprenticeships’, with Higher Apprenticeships being a potential means ‘by which high-level skills are delivered to the workforce without any involvement by universities’.

Our belief and experience at UWE Bristol is that, as a University, we have an essential role in the development and delivery of Higher Apprenticeships. It is very important for young people that their qualifications are nationally and internationally recognized – the qualification is not an end point in itself but must open doors. Being associated with the global reputation of a trusted university is a real asset here.

Universities also have a clear role in working with Local Enterprise Partnerships and intermediaries to ensure that the learning is transferable, beyond immediate employer needs; tackling the tensions that sometimes exist, between transferable skills and learning, and those specific to the particular employer.

In Bristol, we have the second lowest participation rate in higher education in the country. Yet, our graduates from UWE Bristol achieve some of the highest rates of employment in the country. The value of higher education and high-level skills is clear. As we look at the best ways to meet the demand for high-level skills, it is critical that policy makers keep it simple and maximise the value of the current offer. Making pathways accessible and attractive, and blending approaches to learning and work, is essential if we are to address this social unjust – regionally and nationally.

My full speech, ‘The Role of Universities in Facilitating Higher Apprenticeships’ is available here.