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Universities and businesses must collaborate more closely

Charles Clarke, former secretary of state for education and skills, and Ed Byrne, principal at King’s College London, explain why greater co-operation is needed between higher education and the private sector.

The nature of all kinds of work is changing dramatically, which in turn is transforming many aspects of our society. This should provoke a fundamental reassessment of the relationship between universities and employers.

In particular, we need to address the following three challenges:

  1. The number of “careers for life” is in steep decline. This means that university courses and teaching methods need to become vastly more flexible.

  2. Most occupations require higher levels of expertise than they did, as well as a wider range of IT and communication skills. People need to update these constantly throughout their working lives.

  3. The balance between “employment” and “self-employment” is shifting. Students need to adopt a more entrepreneurial attitude and develop stronger networking skills.

Universities and businesses will have to work more closely together to address these challenges. Two particularly important measures they need to take will require effective collaboration: reviewing courses for the employability they provide; and improving students’ preparations for work.

More practical courses

Many university courses already have a strong vocational component. Architects and doctors must normally study for five or six years to gain their degrees, for instance – and a significant part of that time is spent on the job instead of in the lecture theatre.

So-called sandwich courses, foundation degrees and degree apprenticeships are also designed to emphasise the students’ relationship with work and give employers a direct stake in their development.

While none of that is new, it doesn’t happen enough. More courses need to adopt this practical approach and universities should explicitly acknowledge their role in equipping students for work.

Career-long learning

University education is based principally on a “front-loaded” model, meaning that about 90 per cent of students are aged between 18 and 24. But graduates need to continue their education throughout their lives.

This fundamental change in requirements poses four significant challenges for universities. These concern: the form of courses; the nature of continuing professional development (CPD); the development of appropriate flexibility; and the agreement of professional and vocational accreditation.

Courses should offer structures and learning methods that enable graduates and others to update their qualifications when they need to. Universities should provide CPD activities, particularly those that can be performed on a part-time basis and/or online. And the accreditation of shorter course units should permit a flexible modular structure for postgraduate and other qualifications.

Such requirements mean that universities have to become a lot more flexible. Furthermore, any improvements will be far more robust if universities can agree appropriate accreditation with the relevant professional and vocational bodies, so that courses are more valuable to both students and employers. Big employers should be able to agree with universities to co-design and accredit their own in-house CPD activities.

Improving students’ employability has become an increasingly important ambition of universities, encouraged by the Office for Students (the independent regulator of higher education in England) and the inclusion of a significant measure for this within the teaching excellence and student outcomes framework.

Despite this, the success of British universities in terms of the proportion of students finding employment varies from about 90 per cent all the way down to 55 per cent. Despite some recent improvement, universities should be far more ambitious and innovative in this respect. They need to offer a wider range of skills and experiences to help their students prepare for the labour market.

This is best done jointly with employers, perhaps through structured institutional partnerships. Several effective measures are open to them, including: work-experience placements, which students can go on in term time, during vacations or even before starting university; one-to-one professional mentoring; work-related course modules providing insights into particular aspects of a given sector; and a good range of part-time and online postgraduate courses.

The time for this type of change is very much ripe. Government should encourage it by establishing a comprehensive framework for post-school education and training. Universities should form strong relationships with both local and national employers. And businesses should respond positively to such strategies and take the initiative where they can.

The University Challenge: Changing universities in a changing world, by Ed Byrne and Charles Clarke, is published by Pearson

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