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Closer collaboration between business and academia is essential to help raise UK skills base, says joint report. Andrew Lee reports.

Universities and businesses have been urged to work more closely to raise the UK’s skills base in key areas of engineering and technology.

Employers’ organisation the CBI said more academic institutions should follow the example of those such as Sheffield Hallam University, which has developed a business-focused foundation degree in railway engineering in conjunction with Network Rail.

A report called ‘Stepping Higher’, published by the CBI and Universities UK estimates that the higher education sector could provide up to £5bn of the £33bn spent on training by employers each year.

While the report praises the best examples of employer/university co-operation, it claims more could be done on both sides to boost the level of skills in the economy by working together.

Among its recommendations is that employers are given a clearer idea of the expertise available within particular universities and how that could be harnessed to develop their employees.

Academic staff are urged to think afresh about what it means to be a student, and recognise that those enrolling on courses as part of their workplace development may need a different approach to traditional undergraduates or research students.

As part of this new approach, universities should also offer courses in formats that suit employees and the firms that are providing the training.

An example of good practice singled out by the report is Sheffield Hallam’s rail engineering foundation degree programme.

It was set up in response to the rail industry’s urgent need to boost the number of high-quality engineers available to the sector following years of under-investment in the 1990s and safety concerns following accidents such as Potters Bar in 2002.

The course was developed by a committee of academics and Network Rail engineers. It is designed to give students a foundation degree that allows them to spend some time on ‘real-life’ rail engineering projects, and the rest on academic study via a mixture of full or part-time routes.

The first half of the course covers the industry’s basic disciplines and skills, and includes work on a rail project and a paid industrial placement.

The second half gives students the chance to specialise in one of four specific areas — signal engineering, electrical and mechanical engineering, civil engineering or track engineering.

As the course has grown it has attracted significantly more applicants — 400 candidates for around 60 places in the latest round — and 150 are now involved in the foundation degree at various stages.

The report notes that the Sheffield Hallam rail degree includes mature students and those who are converting from other engineering disciplines, as well as undergraduates.