Universities central to delivering the skills Britain needs

13 Dec 2023

Shahid Omer, Director of Policy at Universities UK, writes on universities equipping graduates with the skills they need not just for the first job but for their entire workig life, and calls for a sustainable funding model so that these institutions can continue to deliver for Britain

When we reflect on the primary purpose of universities it is to equip individuals - and through them wider society – with the skills our country needs to prosper. When we look ahead to the multiple challenges we face, be that the climate crisis or an aging population, one of the most striking features is the complexity of the challenges. When you ally that with the pace of change that is already emerging through the adoption of generative AI and other forms of automation it is clear that for individuals and societies to succeed and thrive both now and in the future the abilities to think analytically, respond positively to change and commit to learning and relearning throughout life will be essential.

These are exactly the sort of skills that universities are equipping graduates with. We’re not just equipping graduates for their first job, which is important, but for the multiple careers and jobs they will experience throughout their lifetime. Over 80% of graduate recruiters expressed satisfaction with the adaptability, interpersonal skills, team work and problem solving skills of the graduates they recruited (ISE 2023). All of these skills will serve graduates and their employers well over many years.

However, universities, Vice-Chancellors, course leaders and careers staff are also very focused on the first job graduates will get – that initial transition to the labour market - because they know that this is key to universities’ missions - to transform lives and to serve their community. To support this universities can call upon their long track record of providing technical training. Doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, lawyers, architects, scientists have been taught by UK universities literally in their millions with many universities exclusively focused on technical skills. There are hundreds of professional and subject bodies that universities partner with - all of whom have a strong focus on employers’ needs.

It is in UK universities’ DNA to reflect on what industry needs. It is why universities have embraced the chance to develop and support new technical qualifications with degree, graduate and higher apprenticeships successful across the UK, strengthening links with employers and opening up opportunities. In England, universities, in partnership with Further Education colleges are developing Higher Technical Qualifications, piloting short course provision, supporting Institutes of Technology and ensuring progression options for T Level students.

To go further – and help the country, the economy and individuals face the many social and economic challenges of the future the sector needs to relentlessly focus on its engagement with employers. This means greater collaboration over the curriculum and stepping up work experience opportunities. We also need Government to ensure that complex and duplicated regulation should be reduced to a minimum to maximise resources going to the front line. We have had ambitious better regulation initiatives in the past, we need one now.

Given the centrality of higher education in delivering the skills our country needs, we also need to ensure that there is a sustainable funding model. The tuition fee freeze means £9,000 from 2012 was worth only £6,880 in 2022. In the UK we have one of the most valued and respected higher education systems in the world, international students are voting with their feet. It is a unique selling point for investors in the UK and will be essential to meeting the current and future skills needs of the nation. To under-invest in higher education now would fundamentally undermine the future of the UK economy.

Shahid Omer is Director of Policy at Universities UK