Imagine, for a moment, you are running a small or medium-sized business somewhere in the UK. On the way to work this morning, the radio news reminds you (not that you needed reminding) that the UK remains in the grip of the longest recession since records began in 1955. You also hear that the Government has issued a report outlining its plans for the HE sector over the next 10 years and that it has ‘real implications for employers’. Intrigued, you arrive at the office and look up the report - a framework no less - on the internet.
You go straight to the second chapter ‘Equipping Britain’s workforce for a global economy’ and on page 42, you encounter the following paragraph:
Employers need to do more to help potential students understand the importance for their own future prospects of acquiring high-level skills. As recommended by Alan Milburn’s report, they should offer prospective students information about what sorts of jobs and future opportunities are available in a particular sector, the skills needed to get those jobs, and how those skills might be gained. Employers also need to ensure they provide opportunities for students to acquire the necessary skills through work placements, sandwich course years or support for employees who are studying. All this should be underpinned by close working with universities on course design.
The Government is telling you to do more. Interesting. This is the same Government that has overseen an almost exponential increase in the number of regulations that your business is required to comply with on a daily basis. You recall a recent headline from the Federation of Small Businesses which indicates the average small business spends seven hours every week grappling with regulation. This sounds about right. Finance also remains a concern and you also remember the loan guarantee scheme announced earlier this year - unfortunately your application was rejected by the bank administering the scheme (which had itself received a significant cash injection from government to prevent collapse in 2008).
So you would like to do more, but in the real world, time and money are tight. You did successfully work with your local university on a knowledge transfer partnership, a scheme that made a valuable contribution to your business. But wait, the framework suggests that you have not exploited this opportunity sufficiently:
The majority of businesses that invest in high level skills do not make enough use of higher education. This should change: businesses should tap the resources available in universities more effectively, and universities should become more flexible in providing for business demand. The role that business people play as members of University Boards of Governors, as members of University Advisory Councils and in influencing course provision through Sector Skills Councils is of great importance and will become greater in future.
There is a strange sort of logic at play here. You cannot think of another sector where the customer would be criticised for not accessing all the services offered by a provider. Surely the responsibility for cross-selling lies with the service provider - it certainly does in your business. Influencing provision sounds interesting but you have no idea what a Sector Skills Council is.
The message here is clear - government interventions aimed at increasing the skills of the workforce should be grounded in the day to day reality of running a business, particularly an SME. In the coming months, CFE will publish a report that explores the extent and nature of demand for recent graduates from SMEs. The report will point to a fundamental lack of demand for graduates from the majority of these businesses. The primary reason why some SMEs do recruit recent graduates is that it makes business sense to do so. The long term challenge for government is to create the conditions under which more SMEs make the hard-headed business decision to follow suit - the key to this lies as much in asking government to do less as it does in asking employers to do more.
Joint Managing Director
The full HE framework 'Higher Ambitions' can be found here.