No threat in teaching skills

December 18, 2008

The Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies (Semta) feels it must respond to the article "The class of 2020?" ( November) and its view that higher education can produce either skills or intellect, and that in just over a decade the university may become nothing more than a careers training camp.

In our fast-changing sector, there is an undeniable need for higher-level qualifications and skills. When it comes to recruiting people with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills, 58 per cent of employers report difficulty. But by 2014, it is predicted that 775,000 new roles will require high-level STEM skills. So employers need universities. Our national prosperity relies on it.

The challenge for sector skills councils is to bring more employers, particularly small and medium-size enterprises, together with higher education. The key point is that business and universities need each other, and those needs have long been best served by increasing understanding and working together.

Semta's aim is not to force radical change but rather to engage the power of university in return for future funding as more young people choose higher education. We also articulate our employers' requirements to help universities understand the needs of their customers, especially among hard-to-reach small and medium-size businesses.

Employers are concerned that UK higher education may not be able to sustain adequate funding to remain world class. Each year, companies shell out £39 billion on workforce training, of which just £480 million is spent with universities. We see no reason why universities need to abandon their missions or lose academic freedom if they support workforce development and can use this additional funding to strengthen their institutions and accelerate their missions.

We see the graduate employability skills issue being solved not by diluting or changing higher education curriculum without good reason, but rather by more companies offering well-managed work placements integrated into degree courses and research programmes, as well as with graduates really understanding and appreciating the advantages of gaining business skills via work placements and being able to financially afford the activity.

Walk through any university STEM department and see company-sponsored projects that are not new activities driven by the Leitch agenda or government policy but are instead established practice with the university sharing its intellectual capability to solve problems and push forward the boundaries of science and technology.

Giving business a say in higher education is not a threat. Business and higher education have been successfully working together these past hundred years - long may they continue.

Philip Whiteman, Chief executive, Sector Skills Council for Science Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies.

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