By DAVID MYTON
As the UK comes to grips with the reality of a post-Brexit future the government is planning a new industrial strategy designed to boost economic growth and increase productivity.
In recent weeks it has issued a Green Paper discussion document centred on 10 “pillars” which include science, research and innovation alongside upgrading infrastructure, support for start-ups and creating the best structures “to support industries, people and places”.
Prominent among the pillars is a focus on developing skills, noting that while the UK has some of the top universities in the world and a large proportion of degree qualified citizens “technical education has been relatively neglected … consequently, we have a shortage of technical-level skills, and rank 16th out of 20 OECD countries for the proportion of people with technical qualifications”.
An interesting and rapid response to the skills issue has come from Dr Tony Strike, director of strategy and planning at the University of Sheffield and chair of the Russell Group directors of strategy and planning.
In an article for the UK higher education policy magazine Wonkhe, Strike says that what is needed is a vision for a new technical education system – “one that does not separate skills, higher learning and research-led innovation, but instead powerfully combines them”.
It’s probably not a surprise that his university, Sheffield, is well on the way to doing just that with some quite remarkable initiatives such as its Advanced Manufacturing Research District – a high-tech collaboration between research and industry, focused on aerospace, automotive, medical tech and nuclear energy.
Here university scientists, engineers and students work side-by-side with industry in a high-tech skunkworks designed “to solve live problems and create value”.
Operating alongside all this is a terrific innovative venture called the University Apprentice Training Centre established and run by the university.
Some 600 bright young people from poor working-class backgrounds are employed by top companies and are gaining an education in a top level industrial research context.
As Sheffield Vice-Chancellor Sir Keith Burnett explains, the first cohort are now starting their foundation degree course and will progress to manufacturing engineering courses as the years proceed.
“This means that we have student apprentices learning the skills of the future and able to choose their careers. They are not having a second-class education and don’t have to choose a vocational ‘alternative’ … they are at university and will, one day, graduate with a degree and as much pride as anyone else.”
There is a difference though, he adds. These young people are sponsored by the companies who already employ them.
“They will graduate with a degree recognised around the world and years of industrial experience but no debt.”
It’s a great model, and one that no doubt is ripe for imitation elsewhere.