Employability, EU funding, and the end of an era

Universities used European structural funds to do great levelling up work. Gabi Binnie considers what comes next

Gabi Binnie is Head of Funded Projects at Gradconsult

Many universities are currently, or have recently been, concluding and evaluating European-funded projects.

This funding has enabled universities – in some cases, led by careers and employability services – to deliver innovative and impactful projects for their local region.

Take Liverpool – the LCR Grad Scheme, part-funded by the European Social Fund and delivered by the careers and employability team at the University of Liverpool, is a first of its kind city-wide graduate scheme (including attraction, recruitment and a full graduate development programme linked to the city region strategic goals) for the entire Liverpool city region. The programme enables local employers to access the graduate talent and skills to grow their business, and the graduates are supported into highly skilled roles and retained within the city region.

On the other side of the peaks, the RISE project, a partnership between Sheffield City Council, The University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University, has supported more than 400 small and medium sized businesses in the Sheffield city region to recruit over 500 graduates since 2013. Since 2019, RISE has been part-funded by the England European Regional Development Fund and has produced a net GVA (gross value added) of £3.3m – and when we account for the long-term impact of the scheme, is estimated to produce a £22,3m net present value (NPV) over the next five years.

And these are just two schemes of note. Other great initiatives have been delivered in Wales, the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire region, and many others.

There’s much to be celebrated. These types of schemes have been proven to deliver real economic and social value to regions, and provide tailored solutions to combatting skills mismatch within regions. But they also have the power to win hearts and minds too. Programmes like RISE and the LCR Grad Scheme, which serve their city namesakes as well as surrounding communities that can feel more removed from higher education (which certainly feels true where I’m based in northeast Derbyshire), can act as a stepping stone to further engagement with a university and show how our universities contribute more than just graduate skills to their region.

Will prosperity be shared?

While delivering these types of European-funded projects has not always been without difficulty, these funding pots have enabled universities to deliver innovative, ambitious and collaborative regional projects.

The UK Shared Prosperity Fund, named as the successor to the EU structural funds, could take up this mantle with its promise to “invest in three local priorities; communities and place, support for local businesses and people and skills.” But there are concerns about the complexities navigating this new funding landscape and a sense that other skills initiatives aimed at adult learners or school leavers have higher billing on the priority list for some regions.

There’s also the issue of pace. While some funds have been released and proposals for projects submitted, there is still a lapse of time between the end of EU funding and the mobilisation of new projects which result in further brain drain from regions trying to retain critical graduate talent in their local economy.

It’s yet to be seen whether the UKSPF can deliver the same impactful regional projects that were catalysed by EU funding, but is there a role here for sector organisations to bridge some of the gap? The Office for Students’ 2019 regional challenge fund also catalysed some brilliant initiatives to boost local graduate opportunities. Perhaps the time is now for organisations working in and for the sector to step up and drive collaborations across regional universities and colleges to continue this great work.

Hearts and minds

There is one cause which both the Conservatives and Labour appear to be aligned on – technical education. In his party conference speech back in October, Sunak called for greater parity of esteem between technical and academic qualifications, through the proposed Advanced British Standard. Part of the solution for Labour is the transformation of FE colleges into new “technical excellence colleges”, with local government working hand-in-hand with employers to connect skills and training provision with local need and real job opportunities.

Of course, it is not just our FE colleges that bridge the gap between education and employment. Our universities already consult local employers in curriculum design, deliver training on much-needed technical skills in the local area and support students to develop the essential skills that our local, national and global communities need for a greener, fairer future.

Universities aren’t exactly the political dish du jour, and as we gear up for a general election where universities are likely to be fodder in debates about freedom of speech and who should (and shouldn’t) go to university, the sector should continue taking control of its own narrative. I’d argue that a good way to do this is by winning the hearts and minds of our local communities by continuing to deliver projects that have a positive impact on our students, and on these communities.

With the election looming, we need to make the case for higher education as engines of levelling up now more than ever.

2 responses to “Employability, EU funding, and the end of an era

  1. Thank you, Gabi. A really interesting article. As the debate around ‘value for money’ degrees and international students becomes a part of upcoming general election rhetoric, I think this is a timely reminder of good projects that utilise the benefits of higher education. Hopefully, as you say, we will find a way to build on collaborative work that connects HE with skills and industrial strategy.

  2. Interesting and insightful article. Let’s hope the UKSPF is as committed to the range of projects which have benefitted from EU funding – in turn benefitting students, businesses and local economies … alongside universities of course!

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