Partners in progress

June 22, 2007

Microsoft is helping institutions tailor programmes for business needs, but it has no desire to dictate content or see universities become training providers

The information technology giant Microsoft is well aware of the skills question. It needs to ensure the supply of highly skilled staff — there are about 30,000 roles across its 15,000 partner organisations that adapt its technologies for customers and provide training and consultancy. It is also getting involved with training itself, both through the courses it runs on its products and by helping universities to tailor their programmes to the fast-moving needs of the IT world.

"Because the IT industry is changing so much, it is up to us to inform education of what we require," says Steve Beswick, director of Microsoft’s education group in the UK. To illustrate the point, he mentions the company’s work with Leeds University on an IT security module. "About five years ago, security came up the agenda. It was a bit of an afterthought in developing technology, but these days it is core. We gave advice to the university on the content it could put into the computer science degree to help its graduates operate in the changing landscape of IT."

Developing skills for business is ultimately about making the UK economy more competitive. Microsoft has been working with Sheffield Hallam University as part of a drive to move the regional economy away from the declining steel industry to richer pastures. "Quite a few gaming and IT companies are attracted to South Yorkshire, so they want to be the hub that supports this industry," says Stephen Uden, head of citizenship for the public sector at Microsoft.

However, he says, the role of business should be to advise universities, not dictate. "The thing we should not do as employers is try to turn higher education into a form of training. There are practical skills that higher education can help people acquire, but it also teaches important thinking and problem-solving." Uden is keen to allay any fears about a Microsoft takeover of IT training: "We would not say we want them to be learning all the Microsoft products as part of their education."

Universities and employers need to get better at communicating with each other, Microsoft believes. On the education side, more thought must go into delivering courses flexibly through e-learning and downloads, for example. Employers need to recognise the business case for skills and get more involved in training their staff. They also need to work out a clear message about what they want from universities, which higher education could then act on. "Universities have a fantastic brand and reputation for quality, but understanding the needs of the people they are dealing with and having a consumer mentality is also important," Beswick says. CS

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