On my flight from Dubai to Bangladesh for a British Council Global Education Dialogue, I was surrounded by young Bangladeshi men excited about coming home for their annual holiday. Every year, 400,000 Bangladeshis leave the country to work overseas. Many take low-skilled jobs in the Gulf’s booming construction industries. There are concerns about conditions, and that Bangladeshi workers are paid less than their Philippino counterparts. But, on the whole it is seen as an opportunity for them to earn money, much of which comes back to Bangladesh, and to gain skills.
At the other end of the scale, many wealthy Bangladeshi choose to study abroad. Many don’t come home after graduation. This “brain drain” is seen as a problem.
But it is not surprising. The purpose of the conference was to explore why up to 50% of young people graduating from Bangladeshi universities, which offer technical and vocational education as well as academic, fail to find jobs. The consensus was that Bangladesh’s young universities and vibrant businesses needed to find new ways to work together to ensure students had both the knowledge and the “soft skills” to succeed in the workplace.
As always at these conferences, my mind was half on what contribution I could make to the discussion about Bangladesh and the other half on what the contrast with someone else’s system could teach me about my own. While we have quite a head start on Bangladesh, we too are grappling with how to involve employers in higher education. We have come a long way since Dearing raised this issue in his 1997 review and compare reasonably well with other developed higher education systems such as those of Australia and the USA. In our recent report “Mind the gap: Engaging employers to secure the future of STEM in higher education“, we found most universities in the UK do engage with employers. They provide information, advice and guidance, work placements and internships and contribute, often through industry advisory groups, to the content of the curricula. But really deep strategic relationships, where universities and businesses both commit significant resources, are relatively rare. Regional devolution could provide the right environment for superficial employer-university relationships to deepen and grow.
This is because regional devolution provides an opportunity for regions to think strategically about what they need. Local Enterprise Partnerships provide a forum where local government, employers and universities can come together to identify what they individually and collectively need to do for the prosperity of their region. This might start with the university providing analysis of key issues. How can Liverpool embed sustainability into its growth? What should Portsmouth do if a major employer moved out? In what sectors does Lincoln have a competitive advantage? What skills gaps are preventing Warwickshire from growing its manufacturing industries?
Universities can also be part of the solution. For example, the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership identified that the West Midlands advanced manufacturing sector was suffering from skills shortages, with a large number of employers fishing in a limited pool. So Unipart and Coventry University – with support from the LEP- jointly established an Institute of Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering. Unipart put in nearly £25 million (£17.9m for the building and a further £5.6m for student scholarships and product research & development) and HEFCE supported the project with a further £7.9 million. Students benefit from a “faculty on the factory floor” as well as from scholarships and work placements. Unipart also supports Coventry’s Add+Vantage Scheme (compulsory employability modules that students take alongside their degree).
Further education colleges also play an essential role. We have the potential to create a highly effective skills ecosystem – but only if we create the right conditions and incentives for collaboration. It would be easy not to, especially in a tight funding environment. The debate too often pits higher and further education against each other as though they were effective substitutes. This is too simplistic. For example, the UWE Bristol has active partnerships with seven FE colleges covering an area from Swindon to Bridgwater and up to Gloucester. Together, they offer employers easy access to multiple training partners and students a range of locations where they can study. For example, UWE Aerospace programmes, which are sponsored by Rolls Royce, Airbus and GE Aviation, are delivered at City of Bristol College and Gloucestershire College. Similarly, Plymouth University has around 5,000 students studying in a regional further education partnership registered on foundation courses, HNDs, HNCs and honours degrees. This has enabled people to access higher education across a geographically large region with very few universities.
In Bangladesh, the conference ended with a commitment from the head of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the head of the University Grants Commission (roughly equivalent to a combined HEFCE and SFA) to work together to create more internships and work placements. In time this might grow to encompass other forms of collaboration. There was huge sense of optimism that it would. We need that optimistic collaboration here too.