There has been significant interest in recent years in how higher education (HE) supports local communities and meets local needs for skills and training. The devolution agenda has further increased this interest. Universities, further education (FE) colleges and others delivering higher education have key roles to play in supporting their local regions.

Higher level skills are in demand by employers

Evidence on the changing nature of our economy shows that higher education is essential for businesses to increase productivity and growth. In its 2012 report ‘Jobs and growth: the importance of engineering skills to the UK economy’ the Royal Academy of Engineering forecast that the UK economy will demand a total of (not an additional) 830,000 professionals (graduates) and 450,000 technicians (non-graduate) in occupations across science, engineering and technology (SET) by 2025. The report concludes that ‘there is good econometric evidence that the demand for graduate engineers exceeds supply and the demand is pervasive across all sectors of the economy’. It further states that ‘there is evidence that the demand for people in non-graduate SET occupations exceeds supply because wage premia are also offered for many of these occupations’.

Alongside this, the CBI/Pearson skills survey for 2015 reports that 65 per cent of employers expect to need more employees with higher skills in 2015. Demand is likely to be particularly strong for people with higher levels skills in the construction, manufacturing and SET sectors. The survey also finds that more than two-thirds of businesses have developed links with universities and more than a third are looking to grow their ties in the future. These businesses are involved in providing real-life projects and resources to help students understand the practical relevance of their courses. 25 per cent of employers are also involved directly in developing HE courses.

The increasing numbers of students choosing to study STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in higher education is, therefore, a welcome and much needed driver of future growth and productivity.

The education system collaborates to meet the economy’s needs

There is a complex system of collaboration and cooperation among academics, universities, colleges, professional bodies and employers. These groups are constantly reviewing, refreshing and developing new responses to changes in our advanced economy. As Universities UK points out in its response to the recent Policy Exchange report, it is not about HE versus FE, but securing a successful dynamic between these players.

The Government is already taking steps to ensure that the whole education system is aligned with the needs of our economy. It has instigated area reviews, which have the potential to significantly re-shape the technical and skills provision delivered through the further education sector in future. This, alongside the proposed employer levy could lead to employers driving growth in high-quality apprenticeships for their business and sector. This will provide opportunities for intermediate-level technical provision, and the strength of engagement between education providers and business will be key to its success.

High-level apprenticeships for social mobility and skills

The Government’s commitment to the creation of an additional three million apprenticeships is ambitious, and the quality of provision will be paramount. A recent report from the Sutton Trust, ‘Levels of success: the potential of UK apprenticeships’ (2015), assesses the potential of apprenticeships ‘as drivers of social mobility, enabling young people to gain the skills that they need for their futures’. However, the report notes some significant issues with current provision, not least that the majority of apprenticeships are Level 2, where earnings are likely to be little better than secondary school qualifications alone would secure. Also, apprenticeships are disproportionately taken up by those from less advantaged backgrounds while ‘elite’ apprenticeships are disproportionately taken up by those from wealthier backgrounds who are also more likely to have been given specialist preparation by their school. The report is clear that, to be successful, significant expansion is needed to the numbers of advanced and higher apprenticeships.

With this in mind, the Skills Funding Agency requested expressions of interest from HE providers for the development of higher and degree apprenticeships. In response, HE institutions have committed to deliver HE-level programmes across a range of apprenticeships to over 3,000 apprentices this year. Significant activity to develop and deliver technical education is already under way across the HE sector.

Universities, colleges and employers working together

In the Midlands, Staffordshire University has worked in partnership with employers from a range of sectors to develop and deliver short courses, higher apprenticeships, bespoke degrees, skills masterclasses and live project briefs. Its higher apprenticeship in IT, software and web, and telecoms has been developed and delivered with a multinational telecommunications company. It combines real-world experience with academic learning: the apprentices work on ‘live’ projects which allows them to immediately transfer their learning to the workplace. A local further education college is a key partner in the apprenticeship, and delivers the more vocational elements of the programme.

The University of Wolverhampton is working in partnership with an automotive component manufacturer and a further education college. It has implemented two skills training centres to deliver bespoke training at the manufacturer’s plants in Darlaston and Solihull. All personnel within the organisation have been through one or both training centres, and the company has identified improvements in productivity as a result. The university has consulted other manufacturing organisations to introduce similar context-engaged models to address skills needs. In addition, in partnership with a variety of employers, the university is developing higher and degree apprenticeships in key business areas including construction, engineering, legal and business professions.

Further north, Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) has worked with the Tech Partnership, six universities and a large group of employers at national and regional level to launch the first degree apprenticeship in digital and technology solutions. Learning includes ‘real life’ projects from the participating companies, with the students’ four-year progress captured via a reflective portfolio. The industry partners are true stakeholders in the programme and have direct input into the assessment process, with each major assessment modified to suit the specific employment context.

Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West of England (UWE) and Chair of University Alliance, argues as follows: ‘to meet the increasing demand for higher-level skills we need multiple pathways through education, based on collaboration and partnership – we must not slip into the false divide between vocational and academic pathways. It is critical that we take a holistic approach across the educational landscape as we consider future funding arrangements, understanding how the different elements interact and are co-dependent to boost our economy… The growth in jobs requiring higher-level skills means employees need both knowledge and skills. One without the other doesn’t work’.

Students from the institutions mentioned here will often find employment in the local area upon graduation. For Staffordshire and UWE, nearly 40 per cent of their graduates find employment within a 15 mile radius of the institutions; for MMU the percentage increases to 50 and for Wolverhampton this figure climbs to 60 per cent of graduates working locally.

These are just a few examples of how higher education providers work in a highly flexible, responsive and collaborative way to deliver high-quality, highly relevant, high-level education and skills. And they do so because they are committed to ensuring that the students that graduate every year are entering the workforce as socially mobile, highly skilled, productive and knowledgeable professionals.