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Last week the Science Industry Partnership (SIP) launched their Strategic Skills Action Plan. This follows their Skills Strategy launched in 2016. Today’s guest blog from Malcolm Skingle, Chair of the SIP board, takes a look at the changing image of vocational education.

We are currently witnessing the most far reaching changes to further and higher education in decades – including to the funding environment (the Apprenticeship levy) and across technical education more broadly (The Post-16 Skills Plan). And the Government has also set a target for three million more apprentices “to deliver the skills employers need” in this Parliament.

Alongside this education reform, the Government is building its new Industrial Strategy and its Green Paper is out for consultation. One of the Paper’s 10 ‘pillars’ is to build a “proper system” of technical education.

The Science Industry Partnership has been working hard to influence all of this, and indeed has been very positive about what it sees as an unprecedented opportunity to position academic and technical qualifications on an equal footing. We want to ensure that, in future, technical and vocational education is a distinctive, prestigious, high-quality offer in its own right and a positive, informed choice for young people.

Our employer members have always delivered high-paid, high-skilled jobs; but in recent years, we have put out a clarion call for much better, higher quality, vocational education to meet the demands of our high skill STEM occupations.

Along with the BIA, the SIP recently responded to the Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry “Closing the STEM Skills Gap” to further build the evidence base around pressing STEM skill shortages and the need to reduce them. We set out, in our response, what our SIP Skills Strategy had told us – that there are a range of occupations where appropriately skilled people are in critically short supply.

And the solution? The continued pursuit of excellence in delivery of science vocational skills, supported by industry. The need to build greater capacity in the college and university system for evolving skill areas. And the appropriate funding to sit alongside this.

For example, new degree apprenticeships carry parity of value and esteem for both learners and employers.  They offer a fantastic route to a STEM career, creating a new type of graduate who becomes technically competent through undertaking advanced work-based learning while studying.

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Strategic Plan

The SIP has developed a Strategic Skills Action Plan that has a five year horizon. This sets out the cross sector collaboration with a range of key partners that is required in order to deliver on this high skill, vocational agenda.

A clear part of this plan is to create a network of vocational science Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) around the UK. HEIs have a critically important role to play, and some may have to depart from traditional frameworks of study and create even stronger relationships with employers, to ensure a fit-for-purpose curriculum supported by industry.

The newly announced Institutes of Technology are also set to play a key part in STEM education. These will bring supply and demand together, working across Further and Higher Education and in partnership with local employers to create community bodies that really add value.

Our “Trailblazer” employer group is playing a vital role too, in developing new Apprenticeship Standards and assessment of competence that are creating a clear, accredited route through to the top of the most advanced science professions. We know that the apprentices in our sector are ambitious to achieve professional status. We were delighted to announce recently that ten apprentices from leading science-based companies, Lucite and Pfizer, were the first to successfully complete the new STEM Trailblazer Apprenticeship Standards. They met the Standard across many different disciplines ranging from complex manufacturing of active pharmaceutical ingredients, drug product formulation design, synthetic organic chemistry and analytical research & development, all underpinned by an extensive training programme in the workplace.

Finally, while we are wholeheartedly supportive of this newly developing model of high quality, vocational education, we do continue to call for much more flexibility in the use of the levy. For example how might we make best make use of unused Apprenticeship Levy within the science sector to optimise employer engagement on training and to support upskilling of the workforce?

The forthcoming Industrial Strategy gives us an opportunity to work together to maximise this investment. We are developing a proposal for skills, as part of the “Sector Deal” for science, a much welcome invitation which was put forward from Government in its Green Paper.

The SIP recognises that all of this reform and change presents challenges and opportunities for science employers, and our members will continue to work, in conjunction with Government and its agencies, Trade and Professional Bodies, Providers and Higher Education Institutes to meet the skills challenges facing the science sector now and in future.

The power of the sector approach is here to stay.