Want highly skilled graduates? It's time to engage!

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EEF recently submitted its response to the Witty Review call for evidence on universities and growth. The review sought to explore how universities can work with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and other local organisations to support growth.

Whilst this brief is wide, and invites many questions and comments, today we look at the role of universities in delivering local (and national) manufacturers with highly skilled graduates.

Industry's need for highly skilled graduates is undeniable. The Royal Academy of Engineering for example has predicted that universities must deliver 100,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) graduates per annum from 2012 to 2020.

That's quite a challenge.

What's more, the skill-sets required by manufacturers in the future are diverse

Six in ten companies expect demand for craft-technician and production-related technical skills to increase in the next three years.

Nearly a half of companies expect demand for project management skills, sales and marking skills and R&D skills to increase in the same period.

The challenge gets tougher.

So what are employers doing?

As well as recruiting apprentices, manufacturers also rely on a pipeline of workers from university.

Manufacturers don't expect graduates to just turn up at their door - 23% say they sponsor students through university.

Anecdotal evidence form our membership also suggests that businesses are developing partnerships with universities. For example Lincoln University includes an Engineering Hub, within which Siemens has co-located its product training facility.

Another gateway for students to secure future employment is by undertaking a placement with an employer by undertaking a sandwich course.

Three in ten companies say they offer placements to students.

Although some companies express concerns that degree courses, including in engineering, no longer include industrial placements, which are seen as invaluable both to the student and the prospective employer.

Unfortunately the extent of this engagement is very much dependent on company size.

Whist nearly a half of larger companies offer placements, this compares to just one in five small firms.

In his Review of Business University Collaboration. Professor Wilson recommended that the maximum fee a university can charge during a placement year is capped and 15%. Government endorsed this recommendation, which will be implemented in the academic year 2014/15.

Manufacturers will hope that such a move will encourage more students to undertake a degree course that includes a placement year, including with SMEs.

Government must however monitor the impacts of capping the maximum fee over the coming years, looking both at the numbers of students undertaking degrees with placements, and the participation of SMEs in offering placements.

If participation amongst SMEs does not increase, then government should explore possible incentives for involvement, such as the tax incentive also recommended by Professor Wilson.

The Witty Review focuses heavily on local economies, as well as the UK economy as a whole.

If we are looking to maximise the benefits to local economies then local (and national) businesses need to work more closely with universities to ensure that they are delivering courses with the right content so graduates are leaving HEIs with the skills, experience and qualifications that employers demand. It is the lack of these that is driving recruitment problems currently.

69% say candidates lack technical skills

57% say candidates lack experience

45% say candidates relevant qualifications

This will also require better local relationships between employers and education institutions. These are on the rise, particularly following the introduction of University Technical Colleges (UTCs) and Studio Schools.

The former includes a partnership between a college, university and business, so that the pipeline of talent coming though the UTC can then progress onto HE if appropriate. And employers play a central role in offering work experience as well as designing and development the curriculum.

Unquestionably UK universities already deliver a high number of skilled graduates to the manufacturing industry, but with an increasing number of manufacturers experiencing recruitment problems, the requirement for universities to deliver more graduates with the right skills, experience and qualifications that businesses need is more important than ever before.

But this is not a one-one street.

Employers need to step up to the mark too - offering placements and work experience to university students, sharing facilities and resources with HEIs wherever possible and offering their knowledge and expertise into the design of course content whenever the door is open for them to do so.

Author

Head of Education & Skills Policy

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