Offer students incentives to study in-demand skills, says report

Fee forgiveness or more generous student loans could be used to ensure an area’s skills needs are met, argues MillionPlus

December 5, 2023
A nurse attends to some paperwork
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Universities can play a leading role in better identifying and analysing skills shortages in England and students should be incentivised to study subjects that are particularly in need, according to a new report.

Institutions grounded in local areas can develop targeted responses to regional skills deficits and pivot their provision to meet these demands, according to MillionPlus, the association that represents modern universities.

Its report – Future Proofing England’s Workforce – how modern universities can meet the skills challenge – argues that modern universities need to be empowered with “data, resources and autonomy” to address current staff shortages in areas such as healthcare, education, technology and construction, which are constraining economic growth and productivity in England.

To achieve this, a more strategic approach that accurately pinpoints both current and future skills requirements is needed, the report says, because – although the number of vacancies is well known – the reasons for shortages have not been properly analysed. 

“After identifying the drivers behind shortages, proactive measures can be taken to bolster the demand for competencies that benefit the delivery of public services,” the report – published on 5 December – states.

“These might include incentives to undertake study in priority areas, such as generous maintenance funding or fee forgiveness.”

Graham Baldwin, the chair of MillionPlus and vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, said shortages of nurses and teachers were “holding the country back” while 90 per cent of jobs would require graduate-level skills by 2035.

“There is a path to equipping England with the necessary skills both now and in the future,” he added. “Achieving this goal will require a concerted effort and the active involvement of all key stakeholders, with modern universities serving as vital local anchors at the forefront of this initiative. In short, give modern universities the ball and let them run with it.”

Individual universities have begun to develop methods to access local skills needs but require a more supportive policy environment to remove duplication and inefficient use of resources, the report continues.

Given more access to up-to-date labour market data would allow universities to better target skills gaps and “continue tailoring their curricula and work-integrated learning experiences to equip graduates with practical and sought-after skills”.

The government should therefore make available open-access and granular data on skills demands, vacancies and salaries, the report argues, and explore the potential use of artificial intelligence to analyse job adverts and social media to detect emerging skills needs.

Other recommendations for policymakers include replacing skills-focused structural funding with stable, multi-year funding for specific regions and jobs, and broadening the current apprenticeship levy into a wider “skills and training levy” to incentivise employers to spend more on training staff.

Employers can also play a role in encouraging staff to use funding under the new Lifelong Loan Entitlement to pay for training, according to the former universities minister David Willetts. 

Writing in the report, he cautions that adults might be more wary of taking on debt, so employers should be encouraged to incentivise their staff to make the investment, potentially by offering it as a route to promotion.

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