Cameron Penny is a financial services lobbyist.
Come the next election, the Liberal Democrats won’t be able to escape the accusation they betrayed young people in Britain when they voted for an increase in tuition fees. In fairness to our Coalition partners, these fees are funded by Government-backed debt and only repayable at certain post-graduation income levels. The detail won’t matter, though, when the printers ping into action; it’s too tempting and simple a weakness to exploit.
Meanwhile, the Government is taking steps to rebuild our ability to provide vocational training and routes to employment with its new Traineeship Programme. Elsewhere, you can see great examples of the skills sector working together with businesses and local policymakers to boost jobs and growth. Those cities and regions that get it right can win big. One example is Belfast, where the local universities (Queen’s University Belfast and University of Belfast) have worked closely with the inward investment body (InvestNI) to ensure they are offering courses and helping to train young people who can boost the chances of attracting foreign direct investment to an area where around 30 per cent of employment is provided by the public sector, well above the UK average. The work they’ve done has yielded impressive results. Major firms such as Citi and NYSE Euronext have created centres in the city with thousands of well-paid jobs. Meanwhile law firms such as Allen & Overy and Herbert Smith Freehills have also opened bases.
What lessons should we learn from this?
First, that business will go where there is a ready skills base. Whilst that shouldn’t mean churning out graduates who can only do one thing, there is a clear advantage to winning competitions for inward investment if you can provide the talent. Northern Ireland’s graduates have historically been of a high calibre, but too many were focused on traditional careers in law, medicine or teaching. Linking the needs of business more closely to where policymakers were directing support and the skills sector was training the next generation has delivered huge benefits to all.
Second, it’s that the skills sector should be less wary of private sector involvement. UK universities have been somewhat slower than others to develop this, and what should be standard practice is regarded as exceptional. Again, looking at Belfast, the trading room simulator at Queen’s University has been made possible thanks to First Derivatives. There are also larger scale projects such as the AXA Research Fund. I attended the re-launch of this recently and the commitment on offer is sizable; around €100m over five years. It is one of the largest corporate gifts to academia going. In the UK, the Fund is bankrolling 79 projects in fields including the environment, life risks and socio-economic developments including a €1m grant to Imperial College London. It’s an interesting model and mutually beneficial – the insurer obtains better information and thinking about how to model risk whilst academics get funding for their projects, chairs and doctorates.
If our education sector is going to have a future then it has to be one in which students, businesses and policymakers are freed from a centrally imposed dogma. Indeed, this goes to the heart of the recent debate over free schools. We need an education sector that allows people to study for the sake of it but also ensures a better linkage between what students want to study and what is relevant to study for the economy that we must build. Yes, there needs to be accountability for the education that students receive but there is also a wider accountability which is to ensure that, in an era when young people are required to shoulder ever more of the financial burden of paying for their education, educators leave them with marketable skills.
Put simply; Government must get out of the way across the sector whilst providing for appropriate accountability mechanisms; business must take a far more active role than it has hitherto in education; and educators need to find comfort in a more liberal age.