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A Budget for skills – what role for universities?

Greg Wade

Greg Wade

Programme Manager
Universities UK

Today’s Budget places the country’s key resource – the skills, talent and potential of its people – under the spotlight. In a post-Brexit economy, we will need to ensure that all parts of the education sector are working well, supporting talent and potential wherever it may be and working closely with employers to meet future skills needs and drive productivity and growth.


The excellence of UK universities was recognised by the Chancellor today, with the academic route being described as “undeniably the best in the world”. The announcements on maintenance loans for part-time undergraduates and doctoral loans in all subjects recognise the value and range what higher education can offer.

At the heart of the announcements today is a focus on technical skills and support for the further education sector. As a key part of the education sector – and a valued partner to many universities – we support this. We also support the increased focus on technical skills and “T-levels”. The Sainsbury Review has made great strides in simplifying the technical skills landscape. Universities stand ready to work with their further education partners on the development of technical skills.

The Chancellor identifies choice as the “key to excellence”. The education sector needs to work collectively with government to ensure that adequate information and advice on all choices and options is given to young people, about higher education, further education, technical education and the new higher and degree apprenticeships. Provision of information is one of the key drivers of ‘parity of esteem’.

Yet we will miss an opportunity to enhance the education offer to students and employers if a boost to technical education results in unnecessary barriers to increased choices and lifelong learning. There is already extensive vocational and professional education in our universities. Universities educate engineers, scientists, doctors, nurses, lawyers and a whole range of creative professional. One university counted a total of over 200 professional bodies that it worked with.

Universities UK’s current review of skills is showing that universities also have extensive employer links, designing programmes in partnership with them, collaborating on placements, working on joint projects and encouraging employers to mentor their students. The assumed divide between academic and technical education is, in reality, a spectrum of provision.

The Sainsbury Review identifies two “routes”, the academic and the technical, but it also calls for “bridging provision” to enable movement between the two routes. Identifying this bridging provision to ensure that young people not only have a choice between two routes of equal esteem at the start, but that they also have the real opportunity to exercise this choice throughout their education will be an essential part of an effective system.

While is it is clear we need to boost technical skills to enhance productivity, it is also clear that we need more graduates to drive the higher level skills that will also promote productivity growth.

The increased support in the Budget for PhD places, the majority of them in STEM disciplines, recognises the key importance of universities in subjects that clearly span the academic/technical “divide”. Engineering UK has also recently highlighted the need for an additional 20,000 engineering graduates every year. We need all parts of the education sector, at all levels helping to drive future growth.

While we clearly need a boost to technical education, we also need the whole of the education sector growing to meet the needs of the economy. We must ensure we have a joined-up approach to meeting employer needs. Employers have little interest in the minutiae of education policy-making. This sort of joining up is already happening at the local level, the recent Science and Innovation Audit for Greater Manchester and Cheshire East called for a new Institute of Technology but one that works closely with the universities and ensure progression from further education.

The Budget has announced Lifelong Learning pilots to test different approaches to help people retrain and upskill throughout their working lives. How the education sector as a whole can support this and how information and choice can be enhanced should be a priority for these pilots. Universities provide substantial part-time, postgraduate, work-based learning and professional development, so will have a lot to contribute.

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