In Part 1 of this piece, we began by arguing that the overarching purpose of education is to improve lives, and that this is as true of an “education for education sake” approach as it is to a “education leading to a career”. However, we then went on to note that in recent years, there has undoubtedly been more of a focus on the more career-orientated approach. This has been caused in part because Government and employers believe that universities should be doing much more to drive productivity, and in part because the introduction of tuition fees and consequent post-university debts have forced young people to think far more carefully about which course they do.
Since universities in general are coming under more scrutiny over these two issues — productivity and employability — it is imperative that they look for new and better ways of addressing them. In this piece and Part 3, we will be addressing the issue of productivity, showing how universities might begin to design curriculums that are more geared to increasing economic growth. Then in Parts 4 and 5, we’ll be turning to the issue of employability, showing how universities can work to encourage their students to take the path to sustainable employment.
If universities are being expected by Government and employers to contribute more effectively to increasing economic productivity, a good question to throw back to them is this: Which economy are you talking about? Such a question will probably elicit a rather quizzical expression, followed by the answer, “Well the British economy of course.” Yet the problem with this approach is immediately obvious. The British economy is clearly very broad, and so how could a university in, say, the North East begin to provide solutions which are anything other than equally broad and — as will often be the case — way off the mark?
Here’s a typical example. Last year the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) suggested we would need more than a million new engineers and technicians by 2020, and that this would require a doubling of the current number of annual engineering graduates and apprentices. However, this is a very broad statement and says nothing about what type of engineers are needed, nor about where they are going to be needed (as an aside, our data found this million figure to be hugely inflated, and we estimate total engineering openings to be around a quarter of this amount).
In reality, there is no such thing as “the British economy”, as such, but simply a number of smaller and often very different local and regional economies which are aggregated together to form “the British economy”. For instance, the demands and priorities in the North East are generally vastly different than those in London. If we are to impact on productivity then, rather than painting with the kind of broad brush which says we need X number of graduates in Y occupation, we need to be far more specific and find out what type of graduates are needed, in what numbers, and in which area.
What this suggests is that for a university to thrive in helping to increase productivity, the most effective way to do this is to look first and foremost to its own back yard, seeking to understand the economic conditions, needs and priorities in its own region, in order to then provide a supply of graduates that meets those needs and demands.
At this point, we would anticipate a good objection. Some might question the wisdom of concentrating on increasing productivity in the university region, since it is surely the case that people come to university from all over the country and then disperse all over the country after graduating. “How would it be of benefit to concentrate on increasing productivity in our own region if most graduates won’t end up working there?”
The simple answer to this question is that most graduates do end up in the same region that they studied in. Research carried out last year by the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU) — Loyals, Stayers, Returners and Incomers: Graduate migration patterns — identified four different types of student, according to where they come from and where they end up after university. These are:
Loyals — Graduates who go to university in the region where they live, and who are working in that same region six months after completing their degree
Returners — Those who study outside their home region, and then return to that region to work after graduating
Stayers — Those who study outside their home region and then stay in that region to work
Incomers — Those who work in a region in which they neither studied nor were domiciled
The report then went on to show these four cohorts across the 12 government regions of the United Kingdom:
As you can see, with the exception of London, the East, and the South East, in all other regions the number of students that end up working in the same region in which they studied six months after graduating (the Loyals and the Stayers) is above 50% (the average across all regions is 62.66%).
What are the implications of this? Well, if most students end up working in the area in which they studied, universities find themselves in a unique position of being able to really advance the prosperity of their region by ensuring that they are training students in the knowledge and skills that are actually needed there. Put another way, if a sizeable proportion of students that go through an institution will go on to employment in the same area, doesn’t this present a huge opportunity for universities to shape their curriculum to the needs of that region, and so play a big part in driving growth there?
Undoubtedly it does, but this begs the question of how they go about it. The answer is to tap into regional Labour Market Intelligence in order to establish what the real needs for graduate employment are in the area. For example, a university in the North East might begin by running a report on the expected demand for graduate openings in the region over the next five years:
(NB. our data drills down well below the regional level to County/Unitary Authority and even Local Authority level, and so the same exercise can be done for those sub-geographies within the broad Government Office Region).
Of course it could be that the university doesn’t currently run courses that tally to any of these occupations. What then? One solution would be to respond to the demand by widening the course portfolio to include such degrees. Another response might be to look at the institution’s current portfolio and use the data to uncover if and what the demand is like for occupations related to these courses.
In the example below we have pulled the data for graduate engineering occupations in the South West:
As you can see, the data is telling us not just “how many engineering jobs” there are in the region, but what types of engineers are going to be needed. This information can then be fed back into curriculum planning to identify areas of over and under-supply.
In other words, by accessing data informing them on the graduate demand for occupations in their region, including specialist areas, universities can start to tailor provision that actually matches that demand with adequate supply. In addition, the data can also be used to inform on which industries are employing these occupations, which in turn opens up tremendous opportunities to engage with employers who are currently experiencing skills shortages (more on that in the next part).
All this might sound fine as far as those universities that have a high proportion of students that stay in the area after graduating, but what about those that don’t? And what about those universities that do not necessarily want to focus on their region, but prefer to have a wider influence on productivity throughout the country. We’ll be turning to this issue in the 3rd part of this series.
For more information on how we can help your university improve productivity and employability, contact Jamie Mackay at firstname.lastname@example.org.