This article is more than 1 year old

All kinds of universities can provide skills for growth

A report from the Russell Group highlights the vocational and practical aspects of an award at a "traditional" university. Jamie Roberts tells us more
This article is more than 1 year old

Jamie Roberts is a Policy Manager at the Russell Group

Wonkhe readers will be familiar with a strand of public debate on higher education which neglects both the diversity of the sector and how rapid changes in technology and a deeper understanding of the way students want to learn shapes the ways universities teach.

In some cases, those debates are based on perceptions of a university education that are years out of date. So, the Russell Group has published a new report – Education and Skills for Growth – that we hope will set a new starting point for those debates.

Informed by in-depth interviews with colleagues working in teaching, admissions, innovation and R&D across our universities, our report provides a snapshot of some of the things our universities do well and how this benefits students.

It takes a closer look at how Russell Group universities operate to support students and build a secure skills pipeline for the UK. It highlights some of the innovative practices going on across our campuses and the industry partnerships that are informing the development of our courses.

So, what did we learn from this process?

While high quality is always front and centre at Russell Group universities, there is no single blueprint for the overall teaching and learning experience. Instead, our universities provide a rich and diverse set of routes to academic, technical and vocational success. And while the traditional lecture still has a part to play, it is only the beginning of an education that embraces the pushing of boundaries. Students might be using digital simulators to practise the diagnosis of patients, learning by doing as their course takes them into the workplace or leading and shaping their own research to advance knowledge.

Russell Group campuses are full of innovative and diverse teaching, delivered by leading experts in their fields. Our universities partner with businesses of all shapes and sizes, from huge multinationals to innovative SMEs, to inform course design, align qualifications with skills gaps and ensure students get a personalised learning experience.

Government has put an emphasis on the life sciences as a key sector for the UK economy and joint working like the University of Nottingham’s partnership with GSK on pharmaceutical modules is giving learners first-hand experience of the skills and practical knowledge they will need for a successful career.

The SHAPE of things to come

We see partnerships of this sort in the SHAPE disciplines too, which in addition to helping us understand the way we experience our world are making an important economic contribution in their own right. The University of Birmingham’s ‘Enterprising English’ module offers students the chance to work on ‘live’ briefs given by local stakeholders to develop an enterprising and entrepreneurial mindset, with visiting speakers from companies such as Google, IBM and Lloyds Bank.

And programmes like the University of Edinburgh’s Futures Institute are innovating in this space, combining education from STEM and SHAPE subjects to foster interdisciplinary skills needed to tackle climate change.

A focus on the practical application of knowledge extends in many cases to supporting entrepreneurship and innovation skills. At Durham University, for example, students in a range of disciplines are encouraged to pitch new ideas to a network of investors, with the opportunity to secure substantial pre-seed investment, and have access to expert mentors from the University’s global alumni network and world-leading companies who guide them through the process of starting their own business. Start-up businesses run by Russell Group graduates attract around five times more external investment, have a higher turnover and employ more people than the average UK graduate start-up. Their ventures are more likely to survive and grow into successful businesses.

The diversity in course design is reflected in the variety of qualifications our universities support. Russell Group universities all offer high quality degrees in “traditional” academic subjects, but these are increasingly accompanied by a range of other qualifications. Colleagues in the UK’s modern universities are rightly proud of the technical and vocational qualifications they offer: however, our new report makes clear they do not have a monopoly in providing courses of this sort..

New models

Seventeen Russell Group universities now offer choices of higher or degree apprenticeships, and five are leading or are part of groups that setting up Institutes of Technology across the UK. This mix will be diversified even further with the introduction of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, which will provide new pathways for students who want to study in a more flexible way. This means our members are well placed to respond to the skills demands of employers running to keep up with a rapidly automating and increasingly technology driven economy.

Government has estimated that a shortage of digital and data skills is costing our economy as much as £63 billion a year. As well as integrating data skills into our courses and teaching a significant proportion of maths and STEM graduates, our universities are taking direct action. Imperial College London offers those already in employment the opportunity to take intensive skills courses in data analysis – future-proofing our workforce.

We know that a single cohort of UK-domiciled students at Russell Group universities is estimated to contribute more than £20 billion to the economy over the course of their working lives. Coupled with R&D breakthroughs, the skills base our members are helping deliver is the best way to increase UK productivity and achieve breakthroughs in global challenges like Net Zero.

Supporting and maintaining investment in quality teaching and learning does not come cheap. Speaking to colleagues across our membership when writing this report, it was obvious that there is a growing nervousness about the resilience of our future funding system, with recent inflation threatening to turbo-charge the growth of existing teaching deficits for UK students.

That’s why for the past year, the Russell Group has been calling for a proper conversation about how to build more resilience into the funding system. We will continue to do so with Government and other political parties, while at the same time working hard to operate as efficiently as possible, still offering the best value for the investment made by students.

In busting some myths about what a Russell Group education looks like in 2023, this report highlights the strategic importance of continuing to ensure the higher-level skills provision our economy needs is properly resourced.

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