By Joan Wilson – NCUB Research Analyst

Group-of-students-with-employer-around-tableEmployer engagement with the higher education sector is crucial for productivity and growth, especially in STEM disciplines where addressing skills shortages and continued skills development is key to unlocking innovation potential.

In an event held at the House of Commons on Tuesday evening, the University Alliance and the University of Lincoln launched their report, ‘Mind the Gap: Engaging employers to secure the future of STEM in higher education’, in which four essential categories of business involvement with HE are highlighted:

  1. For the provision of up-to-date information, advice and guidance on profession and industry relevant skills and competencies;
  2. To offer and support student work experience opportunities, including work placements and internships;
  3. For developing pedagogical materials, instruction and learning;
  4. For contributing to physical teaching and learning facilities available to students for improving their specialist workplace skills.

Employer engagement and university-business collaboration are incorporated in the UK government’s Productivity Plan through proposals for a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which ‘will improve the value for money and return on investment for both students and the government, and will contribute to aligning graduate skills and expectations with the needs of employers’ (pp. 28, Productivity Plan).

A key category of employer engagement that measures of teaching excellence would do well to include – specifically those that look at work readiness skills development and student employability prospects gained through HE teaching in particular and university linkages with employers overall – is work experience and access to work experience for widening participation.

For students, employment offers at the end of a course represent an ultimate, though not the only, value for money exercise in higher education pursuits, and these are built through the work experience and employability training opportunities that university linkages with businesses can create.

The ‘Mind the Gap’ report draws on one further link in the employer engagement chain that students are increasingly valuing – and one that ties to the TEF through HE staff knowledge about sector skills developments and requirements – which is staff experience of industry. Among around 15,100 student respondents to the 2015 HEPI-HEA Student Academic Experience Survey, 44% ranked ‘relevant industry or professional expertise’ as the top most important characteristic of teaching staff (pp. 30, full report).

Recognition of the importance of work experience is growing along the entire education track, as evidenced by the British Chambers of Commerce ‘Bridging the Gap’ campaign. The ‘London Ambitions Careers Offer’ report recommends that all pupils in London schools be offered 100 hours of experience of work from the age of seven, a proposal that could raise social mobility where access to work experience from earlier ages has a positive effect on life chances.

As the NCUB continues to develop the evidence base on university-business collaboration around work experience offers and our resources for opportunities awareness, we will learn more on the significance of this form of employer engagement for government agendas around teaching quality excellence, increasing economic productivity and equality of opportunity.