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More than a vote of confidence – making the industrial strategy work

John Latham argues that universities have a major role to play in the delivery of the industrial strategy.
This article is more than 6 years old

John Latham is vice-chancellor of Coventry University, and Chair of the University Alliance.

The incoming executive chair of Research England has described the industrial strategy as a “vote of confidence” in universities. He is absolutely right. But it also puts even more responsibility on universities to remind government and our own regions how much we are already doing and how well set up we are to get these plans up and running immediately.

The contents of the White Paper have been digested on Wonkhe already, but I want to offer some further reflections on aspects of the Industrial Strategy, particularly relating to skills and place. Refining the ten ‘pillars’ which provided structural integrity to the government’s Green Paper published in January, the document identifies five ‘foundations’ for raising productivity and living standards: ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment and place. Across all five, higher education institutions have a central role to play.

All about people

Investing in people has an entire section dedicated to it but it actually underpins everything the government is seeking to achieve; namely a ‘high road’ economy with good jobs, good wages and reduced levels of regional disparity.

One of the most significant announcements was that the Office for Students will have an important new strategic function to “address employer and student needs and expectations in the short, medium and long term – considering the skills gaps that exist today, and anticipating the demands of the future economy”.

This is a welcome development which may even fill the hole left by the closure of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills earlier in the year.

In Parliament there have been calls for a ‘Future Skills Review’ – in the context of both Brexit and increasing automation – to understand our long-term needs and how these align to the sectors and industries of the future. This week’s announcement goes some way to answering this: just as Sir Mark Walport has described UKRI as the ‘strategic brain’ at the centre of research and innovation, the OfS can occupy a similar role on the future of high-level skills.

Elsewhere in the White Paper are the commitments to increase core support for university research and innovation and extra funds for capacity building including PhDs. The conditions that funds such as HEIF and QR create within universities are critical for our teaching and learning environment and our knowledge exchange activities with businesses. Whilst we will need to see what the total figure of additional funds allocated to QR, this recognition is a welcome development: despite being perhaps less high-profile than other sources of funding, HEIF has been particularly successful in supporting university-business interactions with a return of £9.70 for every pound invested by government.

Higher education can be technical

Less clear is whether the government has the framed things quite right when it conceptualises putting “technical education on the same footing as our academic system”, as if the two are entirely distinct. Technical or vocational skills are important at all levels of the system from compulsory age upwards. We know from analysis presented on Wonkhe this week that there is strong demand for a vocational offer. And I would argue that my institution and others members of University Alliance, are already taking strides to meet this demand in our cities and regions, from pre-degree level right the way through to PhDs and advanced study.

At Coventry University, our ‘faculty on the factory floor’ with Unipart provides students with academic knowledge, practical experience, and insight into workplace culture and management experience, while filling important skills gaps in the West Midlands. At Coventry’s Scarborough campus, we have recently brought back nursing degree training to the Yorkshire coast for the first time 23 years, securing the pipeline of skilled professionals to the benefit of the region’s economy and the health and wellbeing of the people who live there.

Other examples include Sensor City at Liverpool John Moores University, which brings industry experts and researchers together alongside students, and the planned Screen School at Manchester Metropolitan University which will help meet local demand in the creative industries. An approach that treats technical education as something which sits entirely at school and college level – as an alternative to the pursuit of higher education – is not only self-defeating but runs counter to these efforts on the ground, which are closely aligned to the needs of regional economies.

Graduate skills for the future

To support a prestigious, world-class system of technical education – which the government says it wants to deliver – it is essential that this includes degree and postgraduate study and builds on the excellent existing provision, including in universities – not simply “alongside” them, as the White Paper suggests.

In the context of the TEF, universities are working hard to better understand, recognise and share best practice on what makes for truly excellent teaching in the context of high-level professional and technical education. For our part, we have recently published a collection of essays from leading thinkers on this subject, and have begun a new Teaching Excellence Alliance programme.  As the government moves to the delivery stage of its Industrial Strategy, we hope that it will refine its thinking and take this on board.

In referencing ‘place’, the Industrial Strategy goes far beyond the important matter of raising skill levels. If we want to retain jobs and pave the way towards higher productivity and wages, the UK needs to invest heavily in its regions. The measures set out in the White Paper – a new Strength in Places Fund for example – constitute a far-reaching strategy. It can’t afford not to exploit the established influence of universities as regional anchors.

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