Blog post

Skills, higher education and the employability agenda

Professor Malcolm Todd is the Provost of the University of Derby and attended a recent meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group at the Houses of Parliament, where they discussed issues around skills needs and the role of higher education (HE) in developing the employability agenda.

By Malcolm Todd - 1 November 2018

In this blog, I talk about the role that higher and further education sectors can play.

I welcome the focus of the discussion upon developing STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subject areas in higher and further education as part of the need of the UK economy to respond to the unprecedented demands of an emerging fourth industrial revolution. At the University of Derby, we play a significant role in this area with our provision of courses and research in science, technology, engineering and maths at further education (FE) and HE level.

However, it is also important to recognise the key role that the higher and further education sectors play in supporting highly skilled jobs in other sectors of the economy, including health, social care and the leisure and tourism industries.

As the population lives longer, the pressures on the social and health care system grow and the needs of the users become more complex. There is also greater demand for the services and products of the leisure sector. The UK’s population is spending its money more wisely in all of these sectors, which means their expectations are significantly raised, and it is in satisfying this that the HE and FE sectors have significant roles.

The repercussions of any hard Brexit will have a considerable impact on these sectors in terms of our ability to recruit employees to fulfil these essential roles. There is an opportunity now for the UK government, employers and wider society, to place higher value and regard on those students choosing these sectors as career pathways.

Preparing our students for work

At the University of Derby, we seek to maximise the opportunities for all of our students in preparing them for work or further study. In 2016, we introduced a mandatory minimum of 30 hours’ work experience into all full-time undergraduate programmes, although many programmes do significantly more, which can be either gained in the workplace or via live briefs.

The importance of students and graduates building and developing real work experience is highlighted in feedback from recruiters locally, but nationally as well. This practical offer of work experience is supplemented by a careers and employability education being embedded into the curriculum, and a broad central employability offer. Understanding the needs of industry is key. We have Industry Advisory Boards, whereby employers can directly speak to academics and the careers team, centrally and college-based, ensuring that not only the broader skill requirements are met, but discipline focus is not lost.

This is all underpinned by our innovative classrooms, which include our state-of-the-art STEM building, Derby Theatre, our sports facilities, the new medical classrooms in Chesterfield, and the excellent kitchen and hospitality facilities at our Buxton Campus. We continue to challenge our students to think more positively and pro-actively about work experience and how they can gain it, offering a wide range of paid internships, promoting and encouraging placement years and volunteering, and recognising the skills developed and built through our innovative Futures Award, which recognises students’ achievements outside of their course, such as volunteering and work experience.

Defining ‘graduate level’ jobs

The current government methodology of using the traditional Standard Occupational Codes to declare which roles are “graduate-level” is dated. It’s not reflective of the current employment market and is not ready for the future job market as the fourth industrial revolution takes hold. Codes are based on traditional views of career and highly-skilled roles, not the whole requirement of a role.

Teaching Assistant (TA) is just one example of a role that is unlikely to be secured without a degree, and students enrol on university degree programmes with their destination of choice being a TA. However, unless the TA is specifically supporting languages, it is not seen as a highly-skilled role.

This is all the more challenging when the TA is working with Special Education Needs, where they require specific skills and knowledge to support their pupils appropriately, yet this is not regarded as highly skilled or graduate. Retail, social care and hospitality are all sectors that are expected to grow significantly in the next ten years, as more traditional roles in accounting, and even careers advice, are likely to decline.

Granted, not all roles in these fields are highly skilled, but a significant proportion are. Chefs face great scientific challenges to ensure their food is new and innovative, as well as catering to the needs of different dietary requirements. Unless they own the restaurant they work in, however, the role is not seen as highly skilled or graduate level, and it is extremely unlikely a graduate will own their place of work.

T level programmes

The continued development and piloting of T Level programmes, due to commence in 2021, is expected to provide a technical education pathway for young people seeking an alternative vocational route into skilled employment or progression into a higher or degree apprenticeship.

These programmes will include a mandatory three-month industrial placement in recognition that the attitude and behavioural traits needed to function as an effective employee are as important as the in-depth technical skills. These programmes alone will not address the problem.

In reality, T Level programmes are likely to be appropriate for a relatively small proportion of students, not to mention the willingness of employers to take young people into their workforce for an extended period with no immediate financial incentive. Focusing on T Levels for ‘technical’ subjects, and A levels for ‘academic’ subjects, risks missing out on developing the service sectors that are a vital support to our society.

Participation in adult education

Participation in adult education has reduced by 50% over the last decade, largely linked to increases in fees, the introduction of loans, and a reduction in grant funding for further education. This has impacted on the HE sector too, as these students, who were often employed, are no longer able to progress to higher education into level 4/5 part-time study.

The Association of Colleges is currently lobbying government for the introduction of a national adult retraining scheme, with grant-funded entitlements up to level 3 to address the projected skills shortfall that is already impacting national productivity and is set to significantly worsen post-Brexit.

Access to HE is an increasingly popular route for adults to return to education with aspirations to progress into higher education – although the programme is loan funded, participation is limited by the absence of any subsistence funding or loan and thus is limited in its scope.

We need to re-evaluate the process that people undertake to acquire the skills and knowledge required to embark upon their chosen first, second or third career. After all, the needs of society and the economy will not be met solely by workers with degrees in STEM subjects. For many of us, our day-to-day lives are highly dependent on the expert care of children and adults, the safety of our communities, the running of businesses, the construction of new homes and infrastructure, and a host of other roles which, though it may not seem obvious, have required training and education which are ‘graduate level’ in their complexity and breadth.

To put it another way, there are skills being used right across the UK today, which we all take for granted, that a qualified rocket scientist would struggle to master without the appropriate training and knowledge acquired through further and higher education.

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About the author

Malcolm Todd
Former Provost

Malcolm Todd is the former provost at the University of Derby. He has published widely on learning and teaching matters, especially around the themes of learner autonomy, work-based learning and the teaching of 'race' and ethnicity.