RSC responds to the Government's consultation on a strategy to increase the number of 'employable' graduates in the UK and raise the skills of workers
What incentives do universities need to make them more responsive to business and employer demand, and give all their students access to work placements? How can employers become more involved in providing careers information and guidance for students throughout their education? How does the UK increase the numbers of people with specialist qualifications that many businesses require such as in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, and languages?
These were some of the questions put by the Government earlier this year to higher and further education providers, employers and professional bodies, including the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), as part of its strategy to increase the number of 'employable' graduates in the UK and raise the skills of people already in the workplace.
According to the consultation report, Higher education at work: high skills, high value, published by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), 'Key competitor countries have higher proportions of their adult workforce with high-level [university-based] skills, so the UK will need to do better to compete'.
In its response to the consultation, the RSC points out that there are already many initiatives that support employer engagement by various groups, including some, like the RSC-led Chemistry for our future, with Government funding. The RSC therefore calls for 'joined up thinking across Government departments and other non-governmental organisations to ensure that the best of these initiatives are supported along with any new initiatives'.
To encourage more students to take STEM subjects at school comes down, the RSC states, to ensuring good graduates in the specific STEM disciplines pursue a career in teaching, which in turn depends on a large pool of STEM graduates, which comes down to adequate funding for practical-based subjects in HE. The RSC questions the sustainability of financial incentives for students to take STEM subjects at university but suggests that enhanced UCAS points for STEM subjects would be an alternative approach.
To enable universities to offer work placements for all their students would have considerable staff and financial implications for both the university and the employer which, the RSC comments, would need to be compensated for if such a plan had any chance of success. The development of HE courses by academics and employers could be one way of encouraging universities to be more responsive to business and employer demand, the RSC states, but would again require financial incentives for both parties since this is a very labour-intensive process.
As far as increasing the level of STEM skills in the existing workforce, the RSC advises that the Government should start by retracting its withdrawal of funding to equivalent or lower qualifications (ELQs) in STEM subjects, which has hit hard many part-time and distance learning providers, such as the Open University and Birkbeck College. 'The recent withdrawal of funding for the ELQs', the RSC finds, 'seems to be contradictory to the whole premise of increasing skills in the workforce'.
The outcomes of this consultation are expected to underpin the Government's strategy to increase employer engagement in higher education.