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Higher skills development: HE - employer engagement

Policy context

The CBI, UUK and HEFCE jointly produced in October 2008 Stepping Higher: Workforce development through employer-higher education partnership a report on how businesses and universities can work together more effectively to develop higher level skills in the workforce (they also produced a Literature Review). A strong relationship between the business and university sectors is seen as critical to improving the UK's competitiveness in global markets. The report argues that 'our future prosperity in large part depends on the skills of the workforce. The reality is that the current drive towards higher value-added products and services can be successful only with the right underpinning of knowledge and skills. Successful collaboration between business and universities already plays an important part in the process but there is the potential to do much more. The report aims to help employers and universities extend successful partnership working in fostering workforce skills.'

TLRP research by Phil Brown, Hugh Lauder, and David Ashton on the strategies of other global players, both companies and countries, raises the question for the UK 'Are we witnessing the rise of a high skilled, low waged workforce?' 

The findings from their work on TLRP Associate Project on 'Globalisation and the Skill Strategies of Multinational Companies: A Comparative Analysis', which examines the future of skills in the new global competition, including China and India, suggests the war for the very best graduate talent will continue, but the number of the cohort that go into well-paid organisational careers may decline. This leads to the need a wider debate about the possible consequences in terms of individual careers and broader skill formation policies (which we will start shortly on a complementary site designed to host such discussions), but the importance of HE and employers jointly engaging in support for workforce development remains. HEFCE have developed a HEFCE strategy to support links between higher education and employers on skills and lifelong learning. This strategy comprises a workforce development programme, which includes Employer engagement projects and Higher level skills pathfinders, and activities by Lifelong Learning Networks (LLNs) are to support the workforce development needs of employers, particularly through:

  • developing the curriculum to facilitate progression
  • developing appropriate information, advice and guidance for vocational learners (and employers)
  • establishing progression agreements that enable learners to build a credit portfolio across institutions in the network towards a full qualification.

As HEFCE was the major funder of TLRP, and now that all the mainstream TLRP projects have been completed, it has been agreed that the findings of research undertaken by TLRP (and IER) can be re-represented in ways that can provide an evidence-based underpinning to how HE and employers can work together in support of lifelong learning and workforce development. A related strand of TLRP work in 2009 is involved in providing a similar evidence base for HEFCE's strategic aim of widening access and improving participation in HE and a TLRP commentary on widening participation in HE has been produced.

One consequence of greater HE-employer engagement for higher skills development will be an expansion of work-related part-time HE. Christine King has produced Part-time study in HE (September 2008), a report commissioned by John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, as a contribution to his review of the future of the HE sector. King argues that 'if the UK is serious about wanting to claim its place in the world economy through the higher level skills of its people, then we have to recognise that the majority of these skills, developed throughout a working life time, will be acquired on a part-time basis' and that 'changes are needed in the way in which government and HEFCE think and talk about part-time students. There will need to be changes in how student success is measured and how resources are allocated. The HE sector will need to adapt its calendars and working practices to accommodate the flexibility that part-time students need without compromising other areas of their work. Employers will need to understand and be persuaded of the value such study will add to their businesses and then be prepared to support it in a variety of ways.'

Any changes in this area may also be framed by possible future changes to HE teaching and learning: see, for example, The Future of Higher Education Teaching and the Student Experience by Paul Ramsden of the Higher Education Academy. HEFCE has recently (September 2002 to February 2005) supported the development of a series of publications designed to enhance employability so that strand of work will not be expanded upon here - for further details, see the Learning and Employability series: 16 guides intended for staff reviewing or developing strategies and practice for the enhancement of student employability.

Note also that the CBI and LSIS produced a companion analysis in January 2009 on Reaching further: Workforce development through employer-FE college partnership.