Graduate-level skills

When the All-Party Parliamentary University Group met recently at the House of Lords, members discussed the issues around skills needs and the role of higher education (HE) in developing employability. But what role should the higher and further education (FE) sectors play together?

The meeting focussed on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, which is welcome given the needs of the UK economy. At the University of Derby, we play a significant role in these disciplines through our courses and research at FE and HE levels.

However, it is also important to recognise the key role FE and HE play in supporting highly skilled jobs in other sectors of the economy, such as health and social care, and the leisure and tourism industries.  As the population lives longer, the pressures on the NHS grow and people’s needs become more complex. There is also greater demand for the leisure sector’s services, with leisure spending showing sustained growth in the UK.

The repercussions of Brexit will have a considerable impact on these two sectors of the economy in terms of our ability to recruit employees to fulfil essential roles. There is an opportunity now for the government, employers and wider society to place higher value and regard on career opportunities in these rapidly growing sectors of our economy – as is the case for leisure and tourism in countries such as The Netherlands and Switzerland.

Preparing students for work

At the University of Derby, we seek to maximise the opportunities for all of our students in preparing them for work or further study. In 2016, we introduced a mandatory minimum of 30 hours’ work experience into all full-time undergraduate programmes. While this is not unique in the sector, it is an embedded element of the curriculum, as opposed to a bolt-on extra-curricula feature. Many of our programmes also offer chances to enhance and demonstrate employability either in the workplace or via live briefs, which are real-world problems faced by employers that our students are invited to develop solutions for.

The importance of students developing real work experience is highlighted in feedback from local and national recruiters. This practical offer of work experience is supplemented by a careers and employability education that is embedded into the curriculum, and a broad central employability offer. Understanding the needs of different industries is key. We have industry advisory boards, whereby employers can directly speak to academics and the careers team, centrally and college-based, ensuring not only that broader skill requirements are met, but discipline focus isn’t lost.

This is all underpinned by investments in innovative classrooms that simulate real-world professions. We continue to challenge our students to think more positively and proactively about work experience and how they can gain it. We do this by offering a wide range of paid internships, by promoting and encouraging placement years and volunteering, and by recognising the skills developed and built through our Futures Award, which is an acknowledgement of a student’s achievements outside of their academic course.

Defining graduate-level jobs

The current government methodology of using traditional Standard Occupational Codes (SOC) to declare which roles are graduate level is dated. It’s not reflective of the current employment market and is not ready for the future job market. Codes are based on traditional views of careers and highly skilled roles, not the whole requirements of a role.

Teaching assistant (TA) is just one example of a role that is unlikely to be secured without a degree, with many students enrolling on university degree programmes with their destination of choice being as a TA. However, unless the TA is specifically supporting languages, it is not seen as a highly skilled role by the SOC system.

This is all the more challenging when the TA is working with pupils that have special education needs and disabilities, as they require specific skills and knowledge to provide appropriate support, yet again this is not regarded as highly skilled or graduate level.

Retail, social care and hospitality are all sectors that are expected to grow significantly in the next ten years, as more traditional roles in accounting and finance are likely to decline, due in part to greater automation of these professions. Granted, not all roles in these fields are highly skilled, but a significant proportion are.

Chefs face great challenges to ensure their food is tasty and appealing, new and innovative, as well as catering to the needs of different dietary and regulatory requirements. Unless they own the restaurant they work in, however, the role is not seen as highly skilled or graduate level, and it is extremely unlikely a recent graduate will own their place of work.

T levels

The development and piloting of T-level programmes, due to commence in 2021, is expected to provide a technical education pathway for young people who are seeking an alternative vocational route into skilled employment, or progression into a higher or degree apprenticeship.

These programmes will include a mandatory three-month industrial placement, in recognition that the attitude and behavioural traits needed to function as an effective employee are as important as the in-depth technical skills.

However, these programmes alone will not address the problem. In reality, T-level programmes are likely to be appropriate for a relatively small proportion of students, not to mention the willingness of employers to take young people into their workforce for an extended period with no immediate financial incentive.

Focusing on T levels for technical subjects and A levels for academic subjects is potentially divisive, and it risks missing out on developing the service sectors that are a vital support to our society. Each of us will need to demonstrate a healthy mix of the technical and academic, as greater skills flexibility will be required by all industries in future.

Participation in adult education

Participation in adult education has reduced by 50% over the last decade, largely linked to increases in fees, the introduction of loans, and a reduction in grant funding for further education. This has impacted on the HE sector too, as these students, who were often employed, are no longer able to progress to HE for level 4/5 part-time study.

The Association of Colleges is currently lobbying government for the introduction of a national adult retraining scheme with grant-funded entitlements up to level 3, in order to address the projected skills shortfall that is already impacting national productivity, and which is set to worsen significantly post Brexit.

We need to re-evaluate the process that people undertake to acquire the skills and knowledge required to embark upon their chosen first, second or third career. After all, the needs of society and the economy will not be met solely by workers with degrees in STEM subjects.

For many of us, our day-to-day lives are highly dependent on the expert care of children and adults, the safety of our communities, the running of businesses, the construction of new homes and infrastructure, and a host of other roles which, though it may not seem obvious, have required training and education which are “graduate level” in their complexity and breadth.

To put it another way, there are skills being used right across the UK today, which we all take for granted, that a qualified rocket scientist or brain surgeon would struggle to master without the appropriate training and knowledge, acquired through further and higher education.

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