In the media

It's the people, stupid!

Research Professional

08 December 2019

This article first appeared in Research Professional

Universities must become proactive players in the employment and skills ecosystem if they are to thrive after the election.

A visiting Martian, observing the battle between the main political parties to outdo or rubbish each other’s pledges of multi-billion-pound spending sprees, could be forgiven for assuming the problems that need to be resolved through this general election are all about money.

After a decade of austerity there seems to be a cross-party consensus that we should now focus on throwing money at our failing public services, tired infrastructure and languishing industrial productivity.

But whichever party prevails on 12 December will quickly find its expansionist pledges frustrated by the real problem for the UK economy: the chronic shortage of people with the skills to convert higher budgets into better healthcare, safer streets, punctual railways or more innovative businesses—problems exacerbated by poor productivity and high drop-out rates among those already trying their best.

For many years, all sectors of the UK economy have lamented their problems of recruiting staff with the skills and qualities needed to meet growing social and market demands, and of hanging on to those they have.

Over 9,000 doctors left the NHS last year, while almost 70 per cent of medical students leave the NHS before they have even qualified. Similar stories are told in policing, social care, teaching and other public services. Brexit will make this worse, as already shown by the exodus of EU27 nationals deciding to go back home.

To adapt (and update) Bill Clinton’s 1992 election mantra: “It’s the people, stupid!”

Bonanza years

It is this issue and the responses to it from whoever forms the next government that will shape the biggest impacts of this election for universities and colleges. The experience of recent years is that it is much easier to turn off the flow of talent into front-line public services than to turn it back on again.

The higher education system, including universities, colleges and apprenticeship providers, should be on the front line of resolving the UK’s people problem through the coming post-Brexit years. If they get it right, these could prove to be bonanza years for higher education providers—but only if they can play stronger roles in making the national skills and employment ecosystem work much better at sector and local levels.

There are few indications of the main parties directing any of their fiscal largesse towards universities. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens have all pledged to abolish tuition fees, without indicating how universities will be compensated for loss of generous funding flows these have provided.

Having to compete for taxpayer grants with healthcare, policing and defence (to name but three big claims) is not a good outlook for universities, who may come to welcome the Conservatives’ caution over Augar’s similar recommendations.

The sector has broadly welcomed Conservative and Labour promises to increase spending on research and development to meet and even surpass the target of 2.4 per cent of GDP. But, as the 8am Playbook has shown, there is more than a hint of smoke and mirrors surrounding the trumpeted bonus; simply making good the potential post-Brexit loss of EU research funding may be the best we can really expect on this front.

More significant, though not necessarily good news for universities, is the growing emphasis by all the parties on vocational and adult education and training, focused on the Cinderella sector of further education colleges and on work-based training through increases in apprenticeships and in-career up-skilling. The Conservatives have reiterated their commitment to growing the apprenticeship route at all levels, notwithstanding the shortfalls against previous targets, while Labour has floated proposals for up to six years’ worth of free education at Levels 4 to 6 for all adults, spread over their working years.

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Feeling the strain

Many universities have already sought to jump on the degree apprenticeships bandwagon but have often found it difficult to align such extended, part-time, employer-based provision with their three-year, full-time, campus-based teaching models. The strain on universities’ entrenched ways of working will be even greater if demand grows for new models of episodic and lifelong vocational education—something badly needed to address the national skills and productivity problems.

There is much more to universities’ role in society than meeting current and future labour market needs, but there is no escaping that, in the eyes of most students, employers, politicians and taxpayers, this is the largest part of their raison d’etre.

However, their abilities to deliver on those expectations—and hence to share in a jobs-driven national resurgence—are hindered by the wider failings of the skills and employment systems they seek to serve. As a report from HM Treasury in 2015 put it: “The UK’s skills weaknesses are of such long standing and such intractability that only the most radical solutions can address them."

There is little sign of any of the major parties offering radical solutions to these long-standing problems, still less addressing the future of skilled work in a world shaped by artificial intelligence, automation and globalisation.

They are instead repeating the old and largely failed formula of setting and budgeting for nominal staffing increases—6,000 more GPs, 20,000 more policemen, 20,000 more nurses—without thinking through where these people are going to come from, who will educate and train them (mostly to degree levels), how they can be deployed more productively in outmoded systems, and how they can be deterred from leaving again.

Universities could decide that none of this is their problem, and that their job is to provide places and deliver education for the numbers and career demands that the market generates. In that case, this election and the post-Brexit world to follow it will offer little to universities except continuing competition for underfunded student numbers and continued pressures to justify their economic and social value to sceptical stakeholders.

Or, they can step on to the front foot and work directly with employers and policy makers to design and deliver people-centred solutions to the continuing if not worsening problems of overloaded public services and uncompetitive industries that the next government will inherit.

Mike Boxall is a higher education expert at PA Consulting

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