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.

Anticipation. Disruption. Excellence.

Students, businesses, government and society are all demanding something new and different from the higher education sector. We need new ways to deliver fresh thinking and ideas to secure the UK’s future competitiveness. 

The evolution of Alliance universities shows just how innovative we can be and the extent to which we have played the role of disruptive challengers changing the sector as a whole for the better. With leading courses meeting the demands of living and working in a modern, global economy; 89% of Alliance university graduates employed six months after graduation; 31% of graduate start-ups that survive three years or more; over a fifth of the UK’s top research in engineering, allied health and design; over 20,000 business links including 13,000 with SMEs; and an estimated economic impact of £10bn – we are not only defining the shape of the higher education sector, but importantly, the UK’s global competitiveness.

Alliance universities are already leaders in our cities and regions, working with partners to develop and deliver strategies for growth. With a growing political clamour for devolution to cities and regions, our strengths and position are well-aligned to the priorities of the government and its future thinking.

Working collectively in identifying the needs of the future economy and helping the UK compete as a knowledge economy in the 21st Century, will be essential to our continued success. At the University Alliance Summit today we explored innovative and ambitious new ways in which we can achieve this and collectively further drive forward the UK’s competitiveness. 

One example is our Doctoral Training Alliance which heralds a new approach to postgraduate research opportunities and to Alliance universities working collaboratively together. With the first DTA in Applied Biosciences for Health starting in October 2015, the DTA is a clear example of the direction in which University Alliance is travelling, clearly breaking away from the confines of traditional ‘mission group’ definitions.

With ideas from today and the development of a new strategic framework for the next five years, spearheaded by Alliance CEO Maddalaine Ansell, we are well positioned to push the boundaries even further.

It was very clear from the Summit today that the University Alliance continues to be an innovative and enterprising force in this rapidly-changing higher education sector, delivering a new kind of excellence for students, for our communities, and the UK.

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.

Supporting Student Mental Wellbeing

Supporting the mental wellbeing of students is a growing concern in higher education and among healthcare providers.

As Vice-Chancellor of one of the largest universities in the UK, with an increasingly diverse student population, and through my various leadership positions in the health sector – which has included chairing the Independent Reviews of Mental Health Related Homicides across the South West for the Strategic Health Authority – I am very familiar with the need for close integration between the health, social care, probation, education and university sectors.

We know that in the general population at least one in four people will experience a mental health problem in any one year and one in six adults have a mental health problem at any one time.

But beyond that, we also know that there are very particular circumstances that students face in a university environment, that for some, means they are more at risk. And this problem has been increasing in recent years. Reports in the sector suggest an increase in referrals and applications to well-being services of between 25 and 37% since last year. At UWE Bristol, this certainly matches the increase that we have been experiencing.

Why has it been increasing over recent years? Well this includes factors such as changes to the profile of the student population, with a more diverse make-up than it has ever had before. It also includes a reduction in financial support that can place an increasing pressure on students to seek part-time work, at the same time as an increased pressure to succeed. More generally, we have also seen higher rates of family breakdown and an economic recession that has hit hard on many young people.

The student population is also in some ways more vulnerable than other young people.

When they join university, they quickly have to adapt to new environments and new ways of learning.

There are also vulnerabilities beyond the individual. Disturbed behaviour by one young person (for example self-harm) can cause considerable distress and disruption to fellow students, particularly in halls of residence.

Universities clearly have legal, moral and practical reasons to provide support for students with mental health difficulties and we have a long history of providing student support, counselling and disability support.

Students are at a point in their life when their university experience is likely to hold the key to their future success. If they already have existing mental health difficulties, higher education could provide a new source of self-esteem and opportunities for engagement with peers and the wider society. Alternatively, underachievement or failure at this transitional stage in life can have long-term effects on self-esteem, and could affect the progress of someone’s future life.

Universities are about opportunities and it is important that all students are supported to succeed. However, this is at a time when the pressure on the public purse and public services is intense. How much can a university do to make up for this shortfall in the interests of its students? Clearly we need to be smart about this and take an integrated and effective approach.

We know there are important practical impediments to this, including restrictions on the transfer of confidential information between agencies. However, a number of models of collaborative working have been established across the country and we should look to and learn from these.

The UUK guidance ‘Student mental wellbeing in higher education: good practice guide’, launched last week and picked up by the Times Higher Education today, provides a great new resource. I was very pleased to give the key note address at this event, on what is a critical agenda – not just to individuals, but also to families and wider society.

Education for Sustainable Development

I am very proud that today we are hosting the launch of the QAA and HEA guidance for higher education providers on Education for Sustainable Development.

Over the last 20 years UWE Bristol has developed policy, strategy and plans to address its environmental and sustainability impacts. We have of course covered the management of conventional impacts across our campuses – for example in relation to energy, waste and water etc… But clearly our biggest sustainability impact arises from the actions of our students, staff and graduates. 

As higher education providers we have a very important role in nurturing the leaders and citizens who will go on to shape the world around us. Our Strategy 2020 picks up this theme very clearly as we are working to ensure our ‘graduates are ready and able to realise their full potential, make a positive contribution to society and their chosen field of employment or further study, and play their full part in the development of a sustainable global society and knowledge economy.’

That is why we have really worked to embed Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) throughout the University. This is about the contribution that we can make to this agenda through our learning and teaching. 

A typical graduate has about 50 to 60 years of life expectancy post-graduation. The skills, knowledge and attributes that they develop at University will impact positively or negatively across their whole lifetime. 

A positive impact is much more likely if we can help our students to develop skills, knowledge, attributes and values, through their programmes of study, that really help them work and live in a way that safeguards environmental, social and economic wellbeing – both in the present and for future generations. That is what ESD is about at UWE Bristol and we are committed to providing opportunities for all our students to engage.

At our last review, 90% of our UK domiciled students engaged with the subject of sustainable development within the context of their discipline. In every Department of the University there are modules or programmes exposing students to some, or the entire context of, sustainable development.

Bristol’s year as European Green Capital in 2015 will also provide further opportunities for our students to put sustainability into practice.

It is not easy but we are on the journey and we are committed to pushing forward, thanks to the leadership of Professor Jim Longhurst and the work of the team and colleagues across the University.

Through ESD and our other university activities, we are shaping future generations and the impact they will go on to have on environmental, social and economic wellbeing across the globe.

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.

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.

Strategy 2020 – one year on

One year on from the launch of our Strategy 2020 and this week I have been out at each of our main campuses discussing the strong progress we have made, our external challenges and opportunities, and our priorities for the next year and beyond.

It was great to reflect with colleagues on our new UWE film, the experiences of our students, and how excited, confident and proud our students are of this University and the opportunities and inspirational environment our colleagues create.

I continue to be impressed by the passion, commitment and innovations of colleagues across the University, supporting our collective ambitions and challenging us and each other to really driving these forward. Our colleagues and students give me huge confidence in the future. UWE Bristol is a great place to work and learn, we have had a very successful academic year and we are investing confidently in our people, estate and infrastructure.