UK universities ‘not meeting skills needs’ of employers

23 May 2019 By Francis Churchill

Business and students want greater emphasis on digital capabilities, UHR conference hears

The UK’s higher education sector is not providing employers with the digital skills they need, leading figures at some of the UK’s top universities have said, while urging HR departments to play their part in driving change through.

Speaking at the Universities Human Resources (UHR) conference in Manchester yesterday, Dame Nancy Rothwell (pictured left), vice chancellor at Manchester University, said employers were calling out for graduates across different disciplines to be taught tech skills.

“For universities like mine, the most pressing issue we’re hearing from our employers is digital skills – that’s coming through loud and clear,” she said.

“We have a lot of digital companies located in Manchester – GCHQ has a big presence here – and big demands on our graduates. And it’s not just graduates in maths and computer science they want. They want graduates in history, English and politics with digital skills.”

Rothwell added it was right that the government’s review of university funding, lead by Philip Augar and expected to be published soon, also looked to address the question of skills. “There’s a wider question where part of what Augar is doing is absolutely right, that we are not meeting skills needs across the UK and I think universities are going to have to adapt to that,” she said.

Paul Boustead, HR director at Lancaster University and chair of UHR, echoed Rothwell’s views, saying he was worried about the future of digital skills and the modernisation of the workforce.

Speaking to People Management on the sidelines of the conference, Boustead said: “To be frank, we’re so far behind where our students want us to be in terms of digital skills and digitisation.

“We’ve got students coming in that need a different pedagogy in terms of how we deliver education to them, yet we’re still [running] three-year programmes with lectures, assignments and essays – and if you’re lucky some of those essays can be sent in electronically.

“That requires radical change because it doesn’t meet the aspirations of the next generation.”

Boutstead said this change was a “big HR agenda” because of the low turnover in university staff. “Training and modernising 400,000 academics to be able to start to deliver new programmes is a piece of work we need to be joined up on and have a consistent approach on. It would take a lot of investment and it takes culture change.”

He added that if universities got this change right, the benefits for the rest of the economy could be massive, but he said in some areas the sector was not embracing change. “If you think about the amount of money that’s gone into the apprenticeship levy, but then you look at what’s been accessed by universities, it’s a very small amount.

“We should have been embracing that change because universities are at the heart of that agenda. We can leverage that funding.”

Joanne Roney (pictured right), chief executive of Manchester City Council, also said the education sector needed greater awareness of what skills were required and in which sectors there was skills growth.

Speaking on the same panel as Rothwell, Roney added that although Manchester as a city was making progress in upskilling young people, its biggest challenge was in upskilling adults.

“It’s that 50 to 64-year-old level who have a combination of ill-health, or health preventing them accessing full-time employment, but equally they have a skillset that no longer matches the market,” she said.

“So there’s quite a lot of thought going on at the moment about what we can do around reskilling adults and getting adults to access the digital skills work – these are not the traditional skills that they have.”

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