Ideas & Observations
‘We need universities to win the battle for the industries of the future’
August 31, 2023
There are a few things in life that are guaranteed: death, taxes and politicians treading the same old ground on education, writes Sim Hall, managing director of Populus Select
Every few weeks, there is someone in Westminster bashing university degrees and calling for Britons to ‘get back to making things with their hands’ or that, as we’ve seen most recently, pursuing higher education is somehow ‘fuelling Britain’s addiction to immigration’.
It’s an easy emotive argument to make to certain demographics but flawed in many ways.
Those up on their political high horse do have some valid points; there is no doubt that university education isn’t for everyone (and there’s nothing wrong with that) and the quality of many university courses could be improved.
Fundamentally though, the global economy is in the early stages of a new green, high-tech, industrial revolution, and unlike some other previous rapid technological advances, this revolution won’t be led by men hammering hot metal in smoky fabrication sheds, or indeed by teenagers in their parents’ garage.
This revolution will be orchestrated from laboratories, research centres and in advanced manufacturing facilities.
If Britain is to lead the charge from the front, then our ranks must be swelled with highly educated, critical thinkers, who have a deep understanding of the science and technology that are the weapons of this war.
‘Revolution akin to a world war’
And make no mistake, this revolution is more akin to a world war; China is preparing the next generation with a focus on high-quality maths and science-based education, and over in the US, the Inflation Reduction Act is drawing investment from the world’s biggest players with massive subsidies.
We work with life science, green tech and advanced engineering firms across the world, and I can confirm the competition for talent is fiercer than ever.
Organisations are paying a premium for highly educated, highly-skilled individuals who have the knowledge, the innovative streak and the ability to see the wider picture.
This doesn’t only come from university education, but it is a proven method of producing the scientific understanding that is needed for the industries of the future: life sciences, pharmaceuticals, green energy, bio-tech and software development.
By reducing the focus on university education, we risk curtailing the very environment that fosters transformative innovation that we desperately need.
Pushing people to abandon higher education right now would be like disarming your own front-line soldiers, and when we inevitably end up having to call in foreign mercenaries, we will pay through the nose for it.
‘Better training of our troops’
Instead, we should look at how we can better train our own troops.
Critics of university education sometimes point that three years studying for a Bachelor’s degree delays people joining the workforce – so let’s speed it up.
We can undertake pragmatic reforms without compromising the quality of education by re-designing curriculum, reducing holidays and introducing summer semesters.
Essentially, the educational equivalent of the five-in-four days working week which has become so popular.
There is evidence from South Korea that this approach could be beneficial.
Children there have an average of just four weeks off school – the shortest summer break in the world – and they consistently score in the top five countries in PISA rankings (an international test of maths and literacy).
‘Advancing our position as a world-leading science super-house’
We could streamline education even more by omitting a majority of many first year curriculum, which is often establishing a base level of knowledge and providing context for the later stages of the course.
To replace this, and ensure those pursuing a degree are doing so with genuine interest and intent to enter a related field of employment, a basic subject knowledge test to enrol could be implemented.
Together, these two measures could drastically reduce the time spent in education and speed up engagement in the labour market, without losing any of the quality that makes the British educational system the envy of the world.
Moreover, this approach, which as far as I am aware isn’t being undertaken in any other country, would likely attract world-class students and exceptional talent, many of whom will join forces with organisations here in the UK to advance our position as a world-leading science super-house.
Most importantly, it would show the global organisations which are being courted by every country in the world, that we are taking immediate action to provide homegrown talent that can take their business forward.
In the last decade we have seen the transformation of vocational training, with new and improved apprenticeships now covering many professions.
It’s time we recognised university education needs a similar shake up – and the sooner the better, before we lose the high ground.
To paraphrase the infinitely quotable military strategist Sun Tzu, ‘speed in war is of the greatest importance; one can’t afford to waste opportunity’.
Make no mistake, we are going into a fight flatfooted, but these reforms, though difficult, would put us on the front foot and ready to attack.
We cannot afford to dilly-dally while other nations manoeuvre around us.