Manufacturers applaud two wins from Willetts

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As the Party Conference season draws to a close, we can begin to take stock of what has been announced, and where there have been wins for manufacturers.One speech, which perhaps didn't hit the headlines to the same extent as others, was from Universities Minister David Willetts. During the short time Willetts hit the stage; he made two announcements, which received applause from manufacturers.

Extending fee loans to part-time STEM students

The first was the announcement to extend fee loans to part-time engineering, technology and computer science students, who already have a degree in a different discipline.

This overturns the previous administration's decision to withdraw funding for students taking equivalent or lower-level qualifications (ELQs) when they have accessed funding previously.

This announcement was largely to attract more females into industries such as engineering. It's no secret that engineering has struggled to close the gender gap evident in the sector. And we have blogged previously on this important issue.

Extending loans will give prospective students, who pursued an alternative pathway at university previously, another chance to study a STEM discipline. UK manufacturers are already struggling to find the supply of engineers, technologists and scientists it needs. Whilst the numbers of 18 year olds applying to study engineering at university has increased in recent years (See Chart 1), we are still not hitting the numbers we need.

Chart 1: Proportional changes in UK 18 year old application rates by subject group 2010 to 2013

Engineering UK for example estimate that engineering companies will have 2.74m job openings between 2010-2020, which will mean we need to double the number of recruits with qualifications like degrees and foundation degrees.

Such vast quantities mean government needs to be thinking more creativity about feeding this demand. Whilst there is much to do on encouraging young people to study STEM at university in the first instance, government needs to adopt more initiatives such as that announced by Willetts.

£200m investment in science and engineering teaching facilities for universities

Manufacturers also welcomed the second unveiling by the Universities Minister of £200m funding for teaching facilities in science and engineering, which universities will need to match with private funding.

As manufacturers continue to develop new products and services, it is vital students are taught on the latest equipment – equipment that they will be then be using in the world of work. Investment in such facilities ensures that students are equipped with the higher level skills that manufacturers are increasingly demanding (See Chart 2).

Chart 2: % companies expecting demand for skills to increase in next three years

Source: EEF Skills Survey 2012

Universities will be looking to the private sector to support them in generating the revenue needed to match fund. Businesses are willing to invest heavily when it comes to skills and staff development, with our Invest for Growth report showing that investing in skills trumps any other forms of investment (See Chart 3).

Chart 2: % companies making significant investment in area in past three years

Source: EEF Investment Survey 2013

But if companies are to support universities in this way, they will want to ensure that this investment produces returns, with universities offering the skills provision employers' demand, and producing graduates to the quality and standard expected by employers.

We are currently surveying our members on – amongst other topics - how businesses engage with universities, and the relationships they build to ensure the right supply of graduates enter into the industry. We will be publishing our findings in early 2014, so watch this space…

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Head of Education & Skills Policy

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