Ready for the future?

June 22, 2007

If universities are going to grab a slice of the £5bn employer training budget, radical changes are needed — culturally and structurally

It has been dubbed the "greatest challenge facing businesses and the higher education sector in a generation". It is not tuition fees or the conversion of polytechnics to universities but higher education and businesses coming together to increase the skills of the workforce.

As discussed on page 3, the Leitch report demands a huge shift in the amount of education provided by universities working with employers. At the moment, employer involvement in higher education is a cottage industry, with only a handful of institutions doing most of the work: 12
of them bring in half the revenue for professional development courses in English universities. Many others merely dip in a toe, according to a recent report by Madeleine King for the Council for Industry and Higher Education.

But there is potential for growth. The Department for Education and Skills estimates that higher education institutions could compete for a £5 billion market in employer spending on training and development; they currently receive about £300 million of this, according to King. She says there are considerable opportunities for universities to get a bigger slice of employer spending on education but adds that "radical changes" will be needed in everything from courses to assessment systems and funding to staffing if this work is going to become a mainstream part of university life. That is why she called it "the greatest challenge".

To start with, employers often want something other than a full-length degree, but the university funding system at undergraduate level is largely designed around three to four-year programmes rather than stand-alone modules. "Our vice-chancellors at the moment see the main barrier as funding by credit," says Richard Brown, chief executive of the CIHE. "Small companies are interested in chunks of learning, and at the moment institutions are funded for 120 credits a year, not 15 for a module, so we need a new or additional funding system."

Employer and university timescales can also be different. Employers want courses to be producing graduates quickly, and the types of skills they are looking for may also change rapidly. "If we talk about undergraduate full-time programmes we are talking about four years’ lead-in time before someone hits the labour market," says Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire. "Employers tend to think short-term — about what happens in the next six months."

University bureaucracy might also need streamlining. "As soon as a qualification is mentioned it carries with it committees and so on," says Brown. He recalls a leading supermarket telling him how some of its representatives had sat through prolonged talks about course design and then commented that they now realised why they had not dealt with a higher education institution before.

Sunderland University may have found a way around some of this red tape. Its foundation degree with car-maker Nissan is structured so that 20 per cent of its content can be changed easily each year. "They are a fast-moving business so they need training that recognises that," says Richard Wainer, principal policy adviser at the Confederation of British Industry. He says foundation degrees, which are often part-time and designed in conjunction with employers, have been popular with business, but there are few of them at the moment.

The transition to the workplace as lecture theatre is also likely to be a challenge as course quality has to be assessed off campus, company staff are accredited to deliver parts of the programme and firms ask for courses that need university staff to work in the evenings or at weekends.

Ultimately, employers and universities need to understand each other’s needs. "We cannot expect people to go out there and deliver what employers want without some work experience," says Deian Hopkin, chair of the Universities UK skills task force. "The big change will be to deliver secondments and work placements on both sides."

Employers have to be made aware of what higher education institutions have to offer them. Universities should take advice from their own business schools and market themselves to companies, says Brown, adding that business will want to know what a university offers that a private training organisation does not. The answer, he says, is that their teaching is influenced by leading-edge research and they are able to accredit their courses.

The list of changes that universities need to contemplate in order to get a slice of the employer education pie is pretty long. Some are so radical that eventually, Brown says, universities may decide they need a whole new division with its own systems and structures to accommodate courses run with employers.

But, warns Brown, universities will lose the business market if they remain as they are. "There needs to be fundamental change — and if there is not, then this work will continue to be carried out by the private sector." CS

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