We must ensure we do the business for UK plc

October 4, 2002

Degrees need to be more flexible if they are to meet the needs of industry, argues Sa'ad Medhat

Are universities really seeking to satisfy the needs of business and industry - or are they focusing too much on recruiting students as a way to secure funding?

Sir Gareth Roberts has identified an alarming "disconnection" between a strengthening demand for graduates and declining numbers of mathematics, engineering and physical science graduates. The Department of Trade and Industry 2000 white paper on science and innovation also notes this mismatch between supply and demand, especially in terms of the shortage of engineers, computer scientists and people with technical skills needed for the new knowledge economy.

Most statistics show that overall numbers of science and engineering students have been increasing. But the growing number of bioscience and computer-technology students has masked the fact that the demand for courses in physical sciences, engineering and mathematics has been steadily weakening, despite industry's demand for students.

Universities have traditionally served the needs of industry in their regions. The new universities were steeped in a culture of close connections with industry. Many of these strove to develop unique and industry-driven courses to prove their worth as a university. But the academic vitality and innovation that was omnipresent then has declined in recent years. A formula of funding relative to student numbers and subject matter has created a different climate. Create a course attractive to students and the university will receive funding. During course development, universities must illustrate career destinations for graduates and gain endorsement from business and industry that the curriculum matches their needs. But, in practice, only a few companies are contacted to check the relevance of a new course. This is neither business's nor academia's fault as no coherent conduit is available for either to communicate their aims and needs effectively.

Far from celebrating the apparently high level of graduate employment in the UK, we should be concerned that, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, in 2000 only 61 per cent of new graduates found full-time employment within six months of graduating. With the rise of more obscure degree programmes, the divide between degree content and business needs will increase. Big business pays little attention to the degree's subject matter, as it knows the student will be retrained on a graduate scheme. Great for students, but not so great for UK plc, which is weighed down with retraining costs. The associated costs are either absorbed by industry or - more likely - passed on to the consumer. But more than 80 per cent of Britain's economy is driven by small to medium-sized enterprises that need graduates with specific skills. They do not have the funds to re-skill graduates and are losing out.

One of the main hurdles facing universities in meeting the needs of the economy is the inflexible structure of traditional degree courses. Within a three or four-year degree period, the dynamics of business change. Reflecting this within an established degree programme is complex as later reinforcement of a course creates a programme that may be out of synch with the earlier years.

Models such as the accelerated degree, commercial training linked with university studies and higher vocational qualifications linked to recognised continuing professional development programmes should be reviewed in the quest to rejuvenate the academic structure and provide a richer, more enhanced, experience for the student. Nurturing graduates who have aspirational and driven entrepreneurial attitude is imperative for the formation of seedling businesses. Although some such companies last only a few years, they create new business sectors that drive competitiveness and engender an upward spiralling momentum that underpins wealth creation.

If universities really want to supply graduates who meet the needs of industry, industry has to share with universities its visions and goals. In science, engineering and technology, the Engineering Technology Board, in partnership with the professions and the regional development agencies, will play a leading role in establishing a two-way channel for universities and industry to communicate their requirements.

This dialogue may help to reconcile some of the mismatches. But the increasingly convoluted variables that determine business and industry's needs mean that it is time to review the academic provision and the funding mechanism in terms of flexible delivery structures driven by output competencies and skills, together with sustainable funding streams that support industrial relevance. The aim is to ensure that universities are more closely aligned with the needs of industry.

Sa'ad Medhat is director for lifelong learning and development at the Engineering Technology Board.

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