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HEi-think: Flexible pathways in HE can help tackle the higher level skills gap

A Universities UK report has called for closer collaboration between universities, further education colleges, and employers to help find a better match between graduate skills and those demanded in the workplace. Ian Dunn, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (student experience) at Coventry University, says more flexible learning pathways may be the answer.


Universities UK is the latest in a long line of high profile organisations – including the CBI, the OECD and the British Chambers of Commerce – to have highlighted how skills shortages in the workplace are one of the biggest challenges facing employers, threatening the prospects for sustainable economic and social growth.

This skills ‘mismatch’ between what potential employees have and what employers need is something the higher education sector has been seeking to address in recent times – as acknowledged by the UUK report Supply and Demand for Higher Level Skills, published last week (December 9).

The report argues that most of today’s graduates are equipped not only with subject knowledge, but also with employability skills that are in demand. But it also calls for an improved dialogue between universities and business to ensure a consensus on what is really meant by ‘employability skills’ – and it is right to do so.

At Coventry University, we have been experiencing the benefits of open discussion and collaboration with industry for years. Just last month, the Chancellor of the Exchequer chose our Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering as the venue to announce a long- anticipated West Midlands Combined Authority devolution deal. Given that the skills agenda was at the heart of the deal, it was a fitting place for the announcement. The Institute is a collaboration between the University and Unipart Manufacturing Group, and was established specifically to meet a growing – and serious – skills gap.

Students at the Institute study in a ‘faculty on the factory floor’ a few minutes away from our main campus, where they learn on live manufacturing projects and put theory into practice every day of the course. As well as benefiting from a combination of academic and practical learning, the students are developing the ‘softer’ skills, such as problem-solving and team-working), that we know are sought-after by employers like Unipart.

However, while the higher education model we are pioneering through the Institute is a useful model for the sector – and certainly one that Coventry is looking to reproduce – there are clearly other issues that require different approaches.

While UUK projects an undersupply of workers with higher (but not degree) level skills by 2022,  in reality this is already a problem. The current skills gap at levels 4 and 5 (e.g. HNC and HND) is one of the key reasons why many graduates are in jobs that do not necessarily require a degree, which can leave them feeling alienated and under-used. Universities do, of course, have a responsibility to ensure graduates realise that a much broader set of job roles need a degree today – and that not everyone fulfils the 1950s stereotype of a graduate leading industry or commerce.  But further education provision also has a critical part to play.

We launched Coventry University College in 2011 in anticipation of this ‘perfect storm’ in the supply and demand of the whole range of higher skills. Focusing on degree level provision (but with HNC and HND awards along the way towards a degree), the college has a portfolio of courses that are accredited by professional bodies and designed to their standards, meaning graduates learn specific skills as defined by employers. Students can study part-time, at weekends, or can complete HNCs, HNDs and honours degree courses entirely online at an accelerated rate, all offered at a lower fee than the traditional university. This ensures that we are further widening participation.

The college is an innovative step amongst many others that we hope HE will take as the sector seeks to address some of the challenges identified in the UUK report. Ultimately, the routes to a degree need to develop so that we have academic degrees, professional degrees and specific vocational degrees. The common characteristics amongst all graduates must be the ability to think creatively about problems, to bring together views and opinions, and to develop better solutions to existing and future challenges.

I would like to invite employers from across the world to visit us and see first-hand how some of these ground-breaking collaborations and developments are producing graduates who are ready to make significant contributions to their professions, to the economy and to society – and who have the grounding to become a creative force in a rapidly evolving and challenging world.




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