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The role of technical education to support R&D talent

22 Mar 2023

An unattributed summary of the roundtable co-hosted by CaSE and the Gatsby Foundation on Wednesday 22nd February 2023

This roundtable was convened to discuss the role of technical education in meeting UK aspirations for R&D. The roundtable considered the role of T-levels, higher technical qualifications and apprenticeships in meeting the skills needs for R&D and the role of further education providers in supporting innovation in their local areas particularly by knowledge transfer to SMEs. Participants also considered what more the UK Government could do to ensure that technical education develops the knowledge, skills and behaviours necessary for tomorrow’s industries.  

The roundtable was attended by a variety of stakeholders across the research and innovation sector, including universities, industry, UK-wide learned societies and officials from Government. This unattributed summary does not represent policy positions of either the Gatsby Foundation or CaSE but will form part of CaSE’s ongoing programme of work on education and skills, ultimately enhancing the environment for science and engineering in the UK.

Introduction from CaSE

The chair opened the session, highlighting that this is an important moment to be discussing STEM talent, in light of the Government’s plans for a more research-intensive economy. The UK Government has put R&D at the heart of its plans for growth, and technical education has a lot of potential to facilitate this transition. CaSE are looking at technical education as part of a new piece of work focusing on education and skills.

Opening remarks from The Gatsby Foundation

The Gatsby Foundation highlighted that the R&D workforce includes technicians and others who will have come through a technical education route. Technicians do not just support scientists and engineers carrying out academic research but have a critical role to play in driving incremental innovation in businesses.  

While R&D is often perceived as something that happens in universities, we also need it to happen in UK businesses. Further education has a particular role to play in supporting local innovation in businesses. For it is precisely the adoption of innovation by businesses which will lead to better paid and more rewarding jobs in areas that currently do not seem to benefit from investment in R&D.

Apprentices can play a role in knowledge exchange applying what they have learnt in a college or university to real world problems.  

It is important to have a shared vision for technical education if we want to meet the UK’s R&D ambitions. Currently, too many employers and providers see technical education, and apprenticeships in particular, as a short term solution to skills shortages rather than a long term workforce development strategy. We could help employers by making sure there is greater continuity in technical education policy.

The value of technical education to support R&D talent

Roundtable participants highlighted benefits of technical education, including apprenticeships, to both individuals and businesses. They talked about different types of apprenticeships, including advanced apprenticeships, higher apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships provide a framework to support individuals to enter a career they may not have gone into otherwise.

Some evidence suggests that apprentices are more ‘sticky’ than graduates, which can help with the retention of talent within a given organisation and region.

Hiring an apprentice can save a business money. Apprentices tend to be younger, which can bring in energy. Apprenticeships can also facilitate diversity of thought and perspectives by bringing in people from different backgrounds.

It was felt that apprenticeships are a tool that could be better leveraged to develop local talent within areas of need. There is a need for home grown talent within the UK system; the replacement of talent from abroad into local regions is not sustainable, often leading to a high level of turnover and exit. There is often a strong sense within geographical regions that there are populations that are served and unserved by education. It makes business and societal sense to engage and harness areas of geography less well served by education and industry.

Apprenticeships can help to improve permeability and better establish a pathway for critical skills between higher education and employers. In particular, apprenticeships can help to enable knowledge transfer to businesses, including SMEs, in a region.  For example, Local Enterprise Partnerships that work with further education colleges can help SMEs to connect with local but also underserved populations in a region. This can be through help in accessing the Apprenticeship Levy, using apprenticeships as a tool to upskill the workforce, and enabling collaboration between different parts of the research system.

Challenges in the provision of technical education

Roundtable participants outlined some of the challenges in the provision of technical education, including apprenticeships.

Participants stressed that it is important to encourage mobility. Employers may not have an incentive for apprentices to obtain broader careers advice with a view to progressing, either within the organisation or more widely. However, apprentices should not be perceived as only suited to one level. There are examples of employers using apprentices as a starting point to carry on moving through organisation. A lower-level apprenticeship should be seen as a starting point for progression to higher technical education or a degree apprenticeship, depending on the individual and the organisation’s needs. Education providers should include professional development and employability perspectives within the provision of the apprenticeship.

Several participants highlighted that the delivery and regulatory aspects of apprenticeships, in particular for degree apprenticeships, can be inefficient and burdensome for employers. In particular future-proofing and updating apprenticeship standards can be inefficient for those with only a small number of apprentices. For example, for degree apprenticeships there are currently five external regulators, and education providers must make inspections and provide returns to all of these, which can be inefficient. The amount of paperwork and administration required is particularly challenging for SMEs, who often lack the resources of larger organisations.

It was felt that further education has been underfunded for some time, impacting staffing and salary rates, which in turn has an impact on the quality of training.

There are tensions around the optimum length of time for an apprenticeship and how this links up with different pathways and organisational business models. On the one hand, longer apprenticeships can be challenging for SMEs who do not always have longer-term certainty on future programmes or even longevity of the company itself. On the other hand, shorter apprenticeships can be challenging to link up with T levels as they do not necessarily provide sufficient extra content. It would be beneficial to improve the progression from T levels to apprenticeships. One mechanism to do this would be through improved networks between employers and FE colleges delivering T Levels, and through encouraging employers to see this as a low risk opportunity to try out a potential apprentice. The work placement in T-levels offers a window for employers to consider potential future apprentices.

It was noted that it will be important to recast the concept of technical education and its cultural resonances. The creation of knowledge requires people with diverse skills and there needs to more effort to recognise this.

Solutions for supporting technical education

Roundtable participants discussed possible solutions to encourage the UK Government to support further education and for employers to take on apprenticeship programmes.

Overall, for further education to be a success will require the interaction of different parts of the system. This requires ensuring employers see the benefit, the Government sees a return on investment, and individuals see value. An increase in skilled people requires training more people, which will require financial scale. All organisations need to be involved, including further education colleges, businesses and public sector research establishments.

In general, it would be helpful to explore incentives that could be put in place to make apprenticeships more attractive for employers. This could help to reduce the cost to the employer, who are often risk averse and unsure of the return on investment.

Tax incentives could be explored as a mechanism for people development and training as well as for R&D.

The development of frameworks could be explored to formalise the contribution of the employer to learning. This could help with the risk to the employer of the return on investment if an apprentice drops out of the scheme.