University – business engagement – the key to tomorrow’s growth

This post was contributed by Rose Devaney, Business Engagement Manager at Birkbeck

Last week, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) published a report called Tomorrow’s Growth: New routes to higher skills. It contains many interesting facts and recommendations, including that the government, business and the higher education (HE) sector should identify exemptions from the Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) policy which means that those studying for a second undergraduate degree cannot access government funding, and that they consider arrangements to mitigate the removal of the part-time premium which HE institutions previously received to cover the additional costs associated with recruiting and retaining part-time students.

The report also recommended that provisions were made to enable universities to respond to employers’ needs, and that universities work with businesses to build relationships in which businesses can influence curriculum development. For an institution which was established with the aim of making higher education available to working people and which has part-time and flexible learning at its heart, this report is of great relevance to Birkbeck.

What do individuals, businesses and UK plc want?

I’d like to think that George Birkbeck, the founder of our College, would have had some interesting conversations with Douglas McGregor and Charles Handy. McGregor’s most famous theory – the X and Y management style – suggested that people want to continue to learn, develop and fulfil their potential. Handy proposed the concept of the ‘portfolio career’ whereby workers typically have a cluster of different employers or types of contract and make career transitions over the course of their lifetime. Both of these theories encompass the idea of lifelong learning – maintaining your skills base, marketability and adaptability as employers draw from an increasingly age- and globally-diverse pool of labour.

So, if we buy into the argument that individuals want to continue to develop, what about employers? Research tells us that by 2020, there will be a 17% reduction in the need for administrative, secretarial and skilled trades. Conversely, a 48% rise in skills pertaining to management, professional and technical occupations is forecast. How will employers remain competitive and meet these skills needs if employees are not encouraged to train and develop and how will we continue to compete internationally if our workforce can’t compete with those from emerging economies?

As the CBI report states: “Skills have become the global currency of the 21st century. Without proper investment in skills, people languish on the margins of society.”

It isn’t all bad news. As a nation, we have one of the most successful HE systems in the world but we need to create stronger partnerships with businesses and more flexibility in our programmes.

So, how are we tackling this at Birkbeck?

We have a vocal role model in our President – Baroness Joan Bakewell, who is a champion for lifelong learning and understands that it “improves skills and kick starts new careers”. We are also putting in place operational initiatives to increase the partnership opportunities between Birkbeck and businesses.

Willie Walsh, CEO of IAG, at Birkbeck Business Week 2013

Willie Walsh, CEO of IAG, at Birkbeck Business Week 2013

In June, we held our fourth annual Business Week, a series of lectures and events by academics and keynote speakers to demonstrate the impact of research in working life and to solidify the connection between learning and the workplace. With keynote speakers including Geoff Mulgan and Willie Walsh, it was great to see students and employers networking around common interests.

We are also developing partnerships with professional bodies to shape qualifications which allow students to achieve a degree and a professional qualification at the same time. For example, our partnership with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales allows students to fast track their accounting career.

Mentor and student at the launch of the mentoring scheme

Mentor and student at the launch of the mentoring scheme

We are currently piloting a mentoring programme with Credit Suisse to support students with soft skills and give them a taste of corporate life and its culture. It’s great to hear that many of the mentors feel they are developing their skills at the same time as the mentees.

Finally, we are expanding our online provision and enabling modular enrolment on a number of courses to allow students more choice and focus in their subject area and flexibility in the intensity of their study.

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