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.