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What MPs think about universities

Ahead of the 2015 General Election, Communications Management commissioned Ipsos MORI to find out what MPs think about the state of higher education today. Justin Shaw looks at the findings, particularly politicians' desire for greater business involvement in our universities.
This article is more than 9 years old

Justin Shaw is chief higher education consultant at Communications Management.

It’s now just a few weeks to go until the General Election – and with this in mind I set out (with the help of Ipsos MORI) to find out just what our current MPs think about the state of our education system and the big policy issues relevant to universities.

Through individual interviews with policy-makers I was hoping for some free-flowing comments about what really needs to be done to improve standards, performance and outcomes in education – but what actually came back was a menu of the more formal issues that need to be addressed by the next government. I.e. invest more in research, address how students pay for degree level studies and all the other usual topics that you might expect cropped up.

However – there was one issue that came out as rather more of a surprise – and that is the level of desire (among politicians) for greater business involvement in our universities.

Having worked in higher education for 24 years, I have always been interested in the lack of understanding by politicians about the great work that many universities are doing to drive ‘employability’, skills development and business performance. Over the years there have been numerous government reports (Lambert and Wilson), business agency surveys (usually the CBI leads on this) and sector initiatives to highlight the need for greater university-to-employer/business engagement.

Our recently funded Ipsos MORI research shows MPs across both parties now want employers to have greater influence over how universities are run and how programmes are taught so that the needs of employers are given greater prominence. 46% of MPs have also identified the skills shortage as the biggest issue facing British business. Clearly – from a politician’s perspective – universities are not working closely enough with employers, and one consequence of this (they say) is a lack of work-ready graduates leaving the system.

The issue of employer-university engagement, or lack of, has been bubbling over for decades and shows no sign of abating. In the last decade there have been numerous government reviews looking at the relationship between employers and universities.

The Lambert Review published in 2003 is regarded as a milestone report in university-business collaboration. Lambert identified a clear mismatch between the needs of employers and the courses offered by universities, and called for funding bodies to take more account of employers’ views when deciding how to allocate teaching funds.

Yet nearly 10 years down the line, employability remained a key focal point in the 2012 Wilson Review of university-business engagement. Wilson proposed various initiatives, ranging from internships for all undergraduates to bringing employers close to the curriculum design. The recommendations from both reports, despite being 9 years apart, were strikingly similar.

The key to closing the skills gap and enhancing employability lies in forging strong and lasting relationships between employers and universities. But despite all the analysis on what could be done to get these sectors working together, it can seem like not much has moved on.

There is still a general sense from the business community that they’re not working closely together. This is partly down to awareness, as employers don’t always know about the broad range of benefits they can access from universities, including access to talent, management development courses and research aimed at solving challenging business problems. Lord Witty’s review in 2013 showed that businesses weren’t always aware of these possibilities.

There are also cultural issues at play. Universities make decisions in a different way and at a different pace to businesses. Companies have said this makes universities less accessible, and in perceptions research we’ve carried out for university clients among business leaders, the same generally issues arise: meet us on our terms, communicate with us in ways which businesses understand, prepare to build long-term contacts (often with no immediate gains), and show a genuine interest in our business.

It’s clear there’s a lot of work to be done in bringing employers and universities closer together, but there are still examples of excellent practice in the sector. More should be done to highlight this, particularly as a model for other universities. The problem is that politicians tend to focus on their more narrow experience of the sector, partly influenced by their own, mostly Russell Group university education. This means they can forget that there are a whole host of newer universities out there, many of which are building innovative links with employers.

Nestlé – for example – has partnered with Sheffield Hallam University to run the Fast Start Programme, a scheme which places school leavers in a salaried training role while they study for their degree. Participants combine academic rigour with practical experienced gained through working on real life projects.

There is a risk that if politicians base their perceptions on the situation at more traditional, research intensive universities, that these examples of best practice in employer-university engagement could go unnoticed, undervaluing our universities’ true contribution to employability and the economy. There is still work to be done on employer engagement, as the examples mentioned aren’t consistently implemented across the sector. But it seems like Russell Group universities, and the politicians who attended them, could learn something from more modern, and possibly more adaptable, institutions.

Those that work in universities need to worker harder to communicate the business-facing activities and achievements that they are involved in and making – so ahead of the 2020 Election we don’t have MPs still saying that universities are still not business engaged enough.

Download the full research here.

2 responses to “What MPs think about universities

  1. I think the comment about RG universities and business is hopelessly out of date.

    At The University of Sheffield we have numerous in depth partnerships with business, the most visible being our two CATAPULT centres around advanced manufacturing with over 100 member companies including Boeing and Rolls-Royce.

    The AMRC was named Boeing Supplier of the Year. It has a training centre with 250 advanced apprentices each year, all sponsored by companies. There is a HEFCE pilot on progression to degree level and beyond.

    Warwick has similar with Jaguar Landrover. VCs of both unis just wrote a report on how to develop this nationally and the future of advanced vocational education in the UK.

    Why not come up to see for yourself? The advanced manufacturing park which surrounds it is on the old Orgreave site. It is genuinely inspiring and world-leading.

  2. I have no doubt that RG universities take employabiltiy seriously and have some excellent links with business and employers. However the fact remains – as the article states – that when it comes to the macro ‘policy gaze’ in regard to higher education, politicians tend to see/consider ONLY the large, research-intensive universities. This is a severely limited and limiting view.

    There is also plenty of research to demonstrate that frequently there is a disjunction between what employers say and their own practices, and between their perceptions of employability, skills etc. and the actual evidence.

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