Future of higher education – a business view

I’m spending the next couple of days at the Future of Higher Education conference. The opening presentation was given by Sam Laidlaw, CEO of Centrica and chair of the CBI’s HE task force. The task force attempted to scope out the future of HE against the challenges of student expectation, international competition and funding pressures. There were six key points of focus from the taskforce: support of high quality teaching and research; the need to raise the numbers of STEM students; the need for graduates to have employability skills; to encourage business-HE collaboration; to encourage workforce training and to encourage diversity.

He focused on three of these areas. With regard to employability two thirds of employers don’t look for specific subjects when employing graduates but look for skills. Improving graduate skills therefore increases their opportunities. Some universities are addressing this by encouraging a high level of involvement in placement/professional training in their third year sometimes supported by specific projects to bring student skills up to speed for their placement. The emphasis on skills not subject heightens the need, in my view, for extended transcripts or the output from the HEAR (Higher Education Achievement Record) project. Laidlaw recognised that employers too need to play their part by giving opportunities for student placements. He highlighted the success of existing knowledge transfer partnerships and the need for REF to reward high quality business based research.

Laidlaw outlined the risks of not increasing numbers of STEM graduates. The demand for STEM students will continue to grow (IT jobs predicted to grow at 5 times the UK average) and the UK risks continuing economic recovery if this is not addressed.

The taskforce were of the view that those sectors that contribute to the economy should be protected and highlighted the investment made in higher education in the US and other countries as an alternative way forward. However given the cuts proposed by the Government, there were a number of aspects that the taskforce would like to see moved forward. There continues to be a need to ensure that those who cannot afford higher education have access. Financial support for part time students was picked up as a particular issue that would assist the continued growth in participation and also work based learning. The changing student demography demands more flexible provision of learning.

Laidlaw concluded by highlighting the role of business in the sector. There is no appetite to underwrite the sector and to fill any funding vacuum that exists. Collaboration and increased partnership is seen as the way forward through schemes such as internship and placements, continual professional development and knowledge transfer. Collaboration may well extend to companies engaging directly with universities to ensure that courses have skills they required.

There is a risk to the economy of not continuing to develop higher education and address the challenges outlined in the taskforce report and further a risk that UK HE losing its worldwide standing and reputation. There is a need to collaborate more, to continue to raise the quality of teaching and research and to deliver graduate outcomes more aligned to business needs.

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