No silver bullet but a few shots could fire up education for business

By Beverley Nielsen on Jul 15, 13 06:19 PM in Enterprise

Employers are clear that generating a greater dialogue and understanding between business and education is one of the most important competitive priorities facing the country.

They think that the 'can-do' attitudes learned in the workplace should be taught in school. They want 'grounded and rounded' young people with the enthusiasm, energy and desire to make a contribution. They want young people who understand about business and get excited about doing things that make a difference.

Employers know they can benefit from access to specialist knowledge and facilities in our universities. But they're often surprised by the amount they're able to benefit from the 'shock of the new', gaining challenging insights from young people asking 'silly' questions, thinking the unthinkable and coming up with 'inspirational ideas'.

In Birmingham and the West Midlands we have a long tradition of making a real difference through a continuous ethos of innovating, designing and making products and services that improve quality of life.

Our businesses are spending more in new product design and development than ever before. Jaguar Land Rover has invested £2.75 billion in new technologies to deliver more sustainable products and helped two million young people to improve their skills.

Research by Idea Birmingham, the BCU-led 'think and do' tank, bringing together brand-led businesses with council and university partners, showed that the Midlands' spend on new product and service design was around £4 billion in 2011 with the region making the second highest contribution to UK exports after the South East.

This kind of creativity and innovation requires breadth and depth in skills with great business and market understanding. We can't expect to parachute young people into these situations and for them to start delivering from day one. That requires relationships to be built between employers and graduates over some time.

The CBI's latest report, 'Changing the Pace,' states that "better education could add £8 trillion to the UK's GDP". CBI wants more focus on the basics - GCSE A*-C grades achieved by all in English and Maths, foreign language skills and general skills to enhance employability. With 46 per cent of jobs forecast by 2020 to be those requiring higher level skills, these are seen as a priority too.

The High Fliers Graduate Jobs Survey demonstrates that work experience is one way of improving job chances for graduates with one in three entry-level jobs being taken by graduates who have already worked for a company - such as in-work placements.

This means more business engagement with schools from primary upwards, more work-based projects, more focus on real-life problem solving, more placements and internships, more knowledge transfer and applied research between businesses, colleges and universities.

The CBI report highlights concerns employers have about the quality of careers advice young people receive; with 67 per cent thinking it is not good enough. They show two thirds of employers are keen to play a greater role in careers advice planning to step up their engagement with schools and colleges. This is good news for young people, as they see the most useful source of advice on employment and careers coming from employer visits.

In February 2012, the Education and Employers Taskforce found that young people who had contact at least four times with employers were five times more likely to be in education, employment or training than their peers who recalled no such contacts.

How do we drive forward greater levels of collaboration?

Paul Noon, West Midlands International Trade Director, UKTI recently proposed a tax credit approach for businesses putting students through higher level education. "For example, if a business could claim up to 80% against tax on the costs of funding a student to take a higher level course, it would be hard not to see a huge take up," he said.
I believe we also need to promote a greater sense of excitement, pride and achievement in designing and making things that improve quality of life.

Through the work of Idea Birmingham, BCU has developed a new economic platform for Birmingham and the Midlands- the Birmingham MadeMe Design Expo. This has involved a large scale exhibition, Design and Innovation Awards covering business, students and schools with collaborative student business projects, factory visits, policy dialogue and debate.

It has also involved piloting two Birmingham MadeMe Retail Collective stores hosted at the Birmingham Mailbox providing a platform for retail entrepreneurs trading in a collective over the past year. It has developed multi-disciplinary learning for students working in collaboration with business and challenging them to think differently about their next generation of customers and producing prototypes.

In launching this year's Design Expo Sir Albert Bore, Leader at Birmingham City Council, said it is bringing together leaders with the vision and drive to promote the reputation our city deserves. He said, "We need businesses, academics and public partners to come together to design a better future for our emerging talent, the energetic and aspirational young people who will carry forward our great legacy."

To deliver this BCU worked with 2013 Design Expo Chairman, Marek Reichman, Design Director at Aston Martin, in collaboration with Birmingham City Council, Marketing Birmingham and Millennium Point, to welcome over 70 brand-led exhibitors, hundreds of students, tens of schools and thousands of members of the public together with over 125 experts speaking at our 'think' seminars, to take part in 'do' events, such as our Graduate Speed Recruitment sessions.

Guests included leading academics, the Director Generals of the CBI, IoD and British Chambers of Commerce and think tanks including The Work Foundation, Centre for Cities, the Big Innovation Centre, IPPR, Multiplicities from Berlin, The Serendipity Machine from Amsterdam, the England China Business Forum and Michigan Futures.

At BCU we are focussed on a future where education and business speak the same language and are enthused about meeting, head-on, the challenges around value and job creation. We are keen to keep growing BCU's capacity to make a real contribution to our regional economy in terms of our applied expertise and knowledge, together with projects where both our students and business partners can achieve greater success.

Beverley Nielsen is Director Employer Engagement, Birmingham City University

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