Universities must prove they can help close the skills gap

Viewpoint

Catherine Hobbs, head of engineering at the University of the West of England (UWE), argues that part-time postgraduate study can help ease industry’s skills problem but only if universities prove to businesses the direct benefits of investment.

Of all the solutions mooted to deal with the long debated skills gap, the role that part-time study has to play is the one that seems to garner most support.  And yet the numbers of students enrolling on these courses continues to fall and businesses continue to report that it is a challenge to put in place the well qualified workforce they desire.

So if there is a consensus that part-time post graduate study has much to offer employers, why is there still reluctance by organisations to commit to post-graduate study for employees?  A recent panel discussion at the Engineering Professor’s Council Congress 2014 focused on just this, bringing to light some key issues that need to be addressed.  

As with many discussions around training and education the issue of funding was high on the agenda. Fee increases in recent years means that, at first glance at least, higher education study is a challenging option, particularly for smaller businesses. There is no quick solution to this at present. Current funding options, other than full sponsorship by employers, are limited.

There are calls to make the student loan scheme available to those studying a master’s degree however there is still a clear disconnect between the understanding that the UK skills shortage needs to be addressed and deciding who will be responsible for funding the solution. What was obvious is that there is a need for the Government to provide greater clarity on the role that they could play in supporting businesses to secure a better qualified workforce.

And of course, even with more funding in place, committing to supporting employees through a post-graduate qualification requires significant investment by an organisation not only financially but also in terms of resource. Therefore it’s vital that they are confident it will provide employees with the right skills, at the right level and within a context that makes those easily transferable to the workplace as quickly as possible.

It seems that it is the lack of confidence in the measurable impact of a part-time post-graduate degree that is often stumbling block for businesses. In fact the reality is very different, with the vast majority of employers who take this route experiencing an almost immediate benefit. 

So what more can academic institutions do to persuade business that they offer a meaningful solution to the skills gap, and most importantly that they are willing and able to meet the ever changing needs of industry?

At the very least what is required is close and ongoing co-operation between Higher Education and business to ensure that course content is relevant, appropriate and regularly reviewed.  It may also be that universities need to look at the way they structure their courses. At the moment most are still very focused on delivering standard degree courses, for example MSc, PhD, but it is becoming clear that to really meet the needs of business and encourage take up of courses a more flexible CPD type approach could help, with the end aim for the learner not necessarily being a full MSc.

At UWE Bristol we have a modular programme which allows students to choose from a menu of options best suited to their needs and those of their employer. Modules can be taken individually or in small numbers, although we also have routes through to MSc if required. The next step for us has been to work with businesses in our region to tailor modules even more specifically to their needs.

For example we are currently developing two postgraduate modules in close conjunction with engineering consultancy Atkins in order to meet a need for a very specific skill set within their organisation. It’s an approach that will have to become more prevalent if universities are to make their courses more attractive, but of course requires commitment from the company (or consortium of companies) if the course is to be financially viable for the university. 

More could also to be done to highlight the benefits that work-based learning can offer. By their very structure part-time courses limit the amount of time spent on campus, and focus instead on the application of new skills and understanding within the workplace.  This reduces the impact on productivity and gives employees the opportunity to put newly found skills and knowledge to immediate use in their day to day role.  It also creates an environment where the employee can begin to pass on the benefit of what they have learnt to colleagues.

There is a clear opportunity for part-time post-graduate study to play a significant role in helping address the skills shortage. What is needed now is for universities to be more proactive in demonstrating their willingness to meet industry needs and for industry to embrace the opportunities that are on offer.