'Initiatives such as sheffield hallam's foundation degree require commitment from companies'

September 1, 2006

For the past year, Alan Partridge has been working with a consortium of employers to set up a foundation degree in metallurgy in partnership with Sheffield Hallam University. The aim is to launch the degree in January 2007.

He is clear about the challenges posed by setting up such a qualification, as well as the pressing need to do it.

Dr Partridge is the chief executive of the National Metals Technology Centre, or Namtec, a not-for-profit company set up in 2002 as an employers' consortium to stimulate high-tech innovation. In his role, he quickly discovered a skills shortage.

"The metals industry is in competition with low-wage economies," he said. "The only way for the UK to survive in this market is through value-added manufacturing.

"But the lack of metallurgy skills in the workforce holds the industry back.

"Universities have merged their metallurgy departments with engineering departments, and the result is a dearth of graduates with the right skills."

Namtec is seeking to improve skills, from the foundation degree to PhD and continuing professional development stages.

The initiative to set up a foundation degree in metallurgy was launched in January 2005 with the support of Foundation Degree Forward and the local learning and skills council.

"We began by getting employers together - setting up a consortium to oversee development of a degree. This included big companies such as Corus and Siemens as well as small and medium-sized enterprises," Dr Partridge said.

"It is important that employers are involved and have ownership of the programme, but as employers we must also recognise that the degree needs to meet all our needs - not just the requirements of one company."

The advantage of acting as a consortium is that small and medium-sized companies can be involved without having to bear disproportionate cost.

"However, this does require considerable commitment from the individual companies," Dr Partridge said.

"It is not just that employers will ultimately pay the fees, they also have to put time and effort into developing the curriculum. If the Government wants to take this further, it will have to acknowledge that in some way."

Geoff Cutts is director of corporate partnerships in the faculty of arts, computing engineering and sciences at Sheffield Hallam. He has worked closely with employers such as Sony, Oracle and Microsoft to develop courses at postgraduate level and is now working with Namtec on the foundation degree.

"These initiatives have to be employer led. I am dealing with hard-headed Yorkshire businessmen who will not pay for a course they do not need.

"At the same time, as a university, we have to ensure academic cohesion, so these initiatives really do have to be partnerships."

He added that the foundation degree was challenging because it involved a consortium.

"It is relatively straightforward working with a single employer. Smaller companies have diverse needs and may not have the resources to mentor people.

"We are looking at a form of group scheme where students move around. It's early days - we are on the cusp of agreement on this."

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