HR responds to CBI comments on education

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has called for students to pay more for their education, as an alternative to slashing teaching budgets. The organisation has also called for the government to abandon its plans to have 50% of young people attend university, and has said that businesses should provide more sponsorship and bursaries. Tara Craig asked the experts what they thought.

The chief executive: Alwyn Welch, Parity

Government policy has driven a significant growth in people going into tertiary education. I think we all realise now that while there may be real benefits for many of these people and the country as a whole, the only way to fund this has been for students themselves (or their parents) to directly carry the cost.

As such, there is some sense in what the CBI is pushing for. Encouraging more people into further education doesn’t mean an increased number of quality, work-ready employees in three years’ time, and who will be able to afford it anyway?

There is a risk the government is leaving young people high and dry. Students are encouraged to go to university, maybe to keep them off the dole for longer, but they rack up large debts, and often don’t learn the skills that employers need.

Parity has run graduate development programmes for companies in Northern Ireland, which provide a transition for university leavers into the workplace, offering them essential business and management skills and hands-on coaching in a work placement.

The courses deliver real benefits for employers and graduates, giving the graduates the opportunity to gain valuable experience, develop their skills and successfully find employment. More than 5,000 graduates have benefited in this way over the past 10 years.

It will always be companies within industries fighting a ‘war for talent’ that sponsor students through university. That’s the way to grab those skills in short supply, while getting the best potential employees you can find. It makes good business sense.

Further lowering the bar for entry into university – which is what adding more university places must do – won’t increase companies’ financial support for students, especially for those who are at the lower end of the academic and skills spectrum.

The graduate programme manager: Iain Heath, Centrica

It was not surprising that Monday’s CBI report on higher education dominated the headlines, as Britain’s universities face some unpalatable choices, given the current funding environment, if they are to retain their world-leading status. Those choices boil down to cutting research spending, slashing teaching budgets, reducing student numbers or finding additional resources to support the sector.

The CBI, universities, businesses like Centrica, and indeed the National Union of Students, were united in their view that the first three of these options are not acceptable, and would damage UK competitiveness over the longer term. So the additional resources will have to come from business, from students and from efficiency savings in the universities themselves, as to expect more public funding given the current budget crisis is unrealistic.

Business already does a lot to support higher education, but can deliver much more – through direct support such as sponsorship, signing-on bonuses and competitive graduate packages, as well as providing high-quality work experience and developing student employability. Businesses also have an opportunity to work more closely with universities, utilising the expertise of students and staff as a part of core innovation activity.

At Centrica, we are committed to building on our already strong track record. Our summer placement programme was recognised as the best in industry by the National Council for Work Experience and we are now increasing placements and internships by 50% to 75 for 2010. In addition, and despite the downturn, we are increasing our annual graduate intake to 60 while continuing to provide a signing-on bonus towards our recruits’ tuition fee costs.

We will sponsor 10 students in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), which are key to our business. We believe sponsorship gives companies the opportunity to identify and build a relationship with the most talented, in-demand students. Where work experience is provided to sponsored students, this raises awareness of opportunities within the company and pre-trains the student so they will hit the ground running as graduates. Building relationships at university can be the most effective, and sometimes only, way of securing the most talented graduates, and we firmly believe it will be in the interests of the wider business community for other companies to get similarly involved.

The HR director: Graham White, Westminster City Council

Good for you, CBI. This is a good start, but it only partially fixes the problem. We can debate the arguments and drag out endless statistics that either support free education or confirm it has failed the average family to date.

It may be right that if higher education was totally free, quality would suffer because universities would be competing for an ever-decreasing pot of public money. And it may also be true that free higher education fails as less than a quarter of children whose parents are manual workers go to university.

But none of this helps business. Universities in 2009 need to rethink not just how they sell themselves to students, but also the nature of the product they are offering to commerce and industry.

In spite of years of engaging and influencing, many universities remain complacent about the product. There is no external focus and there persists, if we are to be honest, an air of academic arrogance. They laughed at the ‘McFries’ university without noticing the amount of potential funding slipping between their fingers. Employers – and not just the Quarter Pounder variety – have had enough of the complacency of the stewards of our future.

If the universities want support and want funding, they need to engage with business now, find out what we need to run our organisations, and partner with us to attract our investment in the talent we need to keep the UK a centre of excellence for business and management.

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