As the Government embarks on a major review of funding across tertiary education, it brings into focus once more an array of debates and discussions about accessibility to post18 education, value for money, choice and competition, and the nurturing and developing of skills that business and the country needs.
While these debates are not new in themselves, the Review will put a spotlight onto whether the balance is right between the needs of learners, employers and providers in Higher Education. Drawing on experiences at a national and institutional level, the National Centre approached me to reflect on this changing dynamic between provider, employer and learner.
Back in 2012 when I supported the Wilson Review, we grappled with the tension between employer needs and student-demands. We were acutely aware that the perception of universities’ ability to provide employers with graduates with the skills they sought was not strong.
There was an impression that universities were not attuned to business needs, but rather were internally focussed, running degrees that the institutions wanted instead. Universities were often regarded as out of touch with business, unable to speak their language.
At the heart of the recommendations made in the Wilson Review was a real desire to change the dynamic. Rather than focusing on the tensions between learners, employers and providers, the recommendations focused on where there were mutual partnerships and mutual benefits.
Collaborations and partnerships saw the co-design of degrees, integrated work experience on all degrees, work shadowing for university staff, encouraging more students to undertake outward mobility overseas, promoting graduate internships, more opportunities to reflect on employability skills, and a new focus on the employability of postgraduate taught and research students.
All of these were already happening in many institutions five years ago. Looking at the landscape today it is clear that the situation is even stronger. Great leadership and strategic approaches to employability from both universities and businesses have ensured that business/university collaboration is more central than ever before, supporting individuals, the economy and UK plc.
At my own institution, we live and breathe partnership with our students and employers. Aston University was created by the employers of Birmingham in 1895 because they could not find enough employees with the right skills to work for them. This close relationship between our institution and local, national and international employers, both large and small, has stood the test of time and has remained the touchstone for all we have done since.
Today, Aston continues to be at the forefront of yet another business-university collaborative initiative. We were the first university to graduate a cohort of degree apprentices and we have matured our ability to provide employers with what they need, when they need it.
“This close relationship between our institution and local, national and international employers, both large and small, has stood the test of time and has remained the touchstone for all we have done since.”
We now have over 350 apprentices studying with us, which is expected to increase to over 700 next year. In this innovation we draw strongly on our track record, our deep partnerships with business, and our legacy built via previous initiatives, including foundation degrees, CPD, KTPs, and above all the sandwich placement year.
We are proud that nearly 80% of our students now undertake a year of integrated work-based learning, and that in 2017/18 we have 2,000 students out on placement, more than ever before. At universities like ours, the collaboration with employers is strong and as important as ever.
As Ministers and senior officials grapple with the complexities and interdependencies of tertiary education, especially funding, they would be wise to learn lessons from previous reviews.
In such a diverse and vibrant sector there will, of course, be areas for improvement. But a brave course would be to use the Review recommendations to encourage more institutions to learn from each other and promote the sharing of good practice across the practice. The dynamic between providers, employers and learners does not need to be one of tension but one of partnership and collaboration.
Helen Higson is the Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Aston University
This article first appeared in the 2018 State of the Relationship report, commissioned by Research England and compiled and published by NCUB.