The employer perspective

Given the UK’s future prosperity relies on the skills and ingenuity of our people, no industry has a bigger part to play in supporting economic and social growth than our world-leading higher education sector. Yet the environment in which universities operate is changing rapidly.

The world of work is undergoing big shifts and, whilst it is hard to predict how access to skilled migrants might change as the UK leaves the European Union, we know that additional routes to higher skills will matter more, and prepare people for the changes they will face – whatever the outcome of Brexit negotiations.

Partnerships between universities and businesses are essential to getting this right. They can help deliver the skills our economy will need for the future and, along with a wider range of forms of provision, can help promote growth, expand opportunities and boost competitiveness.

The world in which we live is increasingly complex and fast-paced, whether because of technological developments – from AI to blockchain – or the advent of innovative new products and services. Students will need to become accustomed to a world where changes of job will more often mean changes of career, as industries develop and evolve. To prepare for this, graduates will need to constantly develop their skills and experience, to enable them to fill roles that do not currently exist. What they learn at university will need to underpin their ability to navigate this process.

To equip the future workforce with the appropriate skills, knowledge and expertise, businesses need to play a more active role in the design and delivery of the curriculum

The mix of our technical skills base also matters. We know that the UK already suffers from acute skills shortages in key areas, such as STEM – although as our vibrant creative industries show us, we mustn’t devalue the important role arts subjects will continue to have.

The development of a modern industrial strategy presents a fantastic platform to address these challenges. Universities, as deep-rooted institutions in the UK’s regions and nations, have to play an important role in spreading opportunities throughout the country as part of this.

So then, how then can we make this a reality? We should start by looking at how to foster greater collaboration between universities and businesses on curriculum design and delivery.

To start with, we need to recognise that there is great work already going on. Universities are increasingly working with employers to boost the skills of the current and future workforce. The incentive for employers is clear: for businesses, graduates are as attractive as ever. Three-quarters of businesses anticipate having more job openings for people with higher-level skills over the coming years, and eight out of 10 have maintained or boosted graduate recruitment this year. And for students increasingly interested in securing value for money, an education which is not just intellectually challenging but also relevant to what they do next is highly compelling. So for employers and graduates alike, the business case is clear.

Nonetheless, more needs to be done to meet the economy’s future higher skills needs. Over half of businesses are not confident that there will be enough people available in the future with the necessary skills to fill their high-skilled jobs. Businesses can do more to help the higher education sector deliver the skills our economy needs for the future. To equip the future workforce with the appropriate skills, knowledge and expertise, businesses need to play a more active role in the design and delivery of the curriculum.

Existing partnerships show how successful these collaborations can be. Whether that’s Coventry University working with Unipart Group to develop an Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering and ‘faculty on the factory floor’ (See the case study about AME later in this publication) or the University of Greenwich’s partnership with Ford, University Alliance members enjoy fantastic relationships with more than 16,000 firms.

Despite this, too often we hear of examples of long-term partnerships between universities and businesses growing out of chance encounters or through individual effort. Many businesses – especially the medium-sized firms that are the real engines of our economy – tell us that they ‘don’t know where the front door is’ to a university. On the university side, there is a mirror image – a struggle to reach these firms, while larger businesses know how to navigate the system and the smallest firms often grew out of the university ecosystem.

Getting these partnerships with growing firms right offers two fantastic opportunities for businesses – closer links with universities on talent development and access to the kind of practice-led research and development that many University Alliance members do so well. It is a critical challenge for the UK that our leading-edge research is excellent, but we struggle with development and diffusion. Better work with universities by firms of all sizes can help to change this.

To meet the UK’s future skills needs, we know we’ll also need much more dynamism and innovation within the higher education offer. For the UK to thrive, we must develop a wider range of pathways to higher skills, including traditional courses delivered through sandwich or accelerated degrees, and in-work options like part-time, distance learning, and apprenticeships.

Through university and business collaboration, cutting-edge courses have been developed that are fit for a changing world. For example, UWE Bristol hosts the largest robotics lab in the UK which provides space for students to work with industry experts to gain first-hand experience and training.

To succeed, we need to build on these fantastic types of initiatives.

Degree Apprenticeships provide an exciting new route into higher education and could prove attractive to those who would not traditionally undertake degree-level study.

In helping to blur the boundaries between university and business, Degree Apprenticeships can help strengthen existing relationships and foster new collaborations between industry and academia. Liverpool John Moores University, for instance, has helped in the development and delivery of 13 Quantity Surveying Degree Apprentices in partnership with eight different companies, including three SMEs.

The responsibility of making Degree Apprenticeships a success is shared by universities and businesses. Although the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy has helped to accelerate their adoption by making a dedicated source of funding available for the first time, provision remains limited. To guarantee a successful expansion of Degree Apprenticeships from this low base, employers will need to work with universities at the early stages of development to ensure provision meets need.

Part-time study will also be an important way to ensure that everybody who can benefit from higher education is able to do so. Two-thirds of the workforce of 2030 have already left full-time education, meaning that learn-while-you-earn models of education will be vital in helping  people to upskill. The CBI has been working with UA and others to reverse the effects of the 2011 reforms on part-time numbers.

Yet the rigidity of the Apprenticeship Levy means that many part-time degree courses are off the table for employers looking to support their workforce to develop higher skills. This is one reason why the Levy should develop into a more flexible skills levy.

So, whilst there are many challenges, there is also a fantastic opportunity facing the higher education sector – and much of this relies on enhanced collaboration.

Business is clear that through closer partnerships with the higher education sector, we can put our world-class universities at the centre of a modern industrial strategy, and the work we put in now will ensure that we have the skills necessary for the UK’s future prosperity.

This essay has been extracted from our publication, Technical and Professional Excellence: Perspectives on learning and teaching.

Further reading