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Looking ahead

Steven Spier argues that industry, government and higher education must fill future skills gaps together

How do we ensure British businesses remain globally competitive during the next few decades? By ensuring graduates have the skills industry needs. But that requires a radical rethink in the way universities, business and government collaborate.

Last year, with YouGov, Kingston University launched a Future Skills League Table, which revealed the top 10 skills valued by leading firms.

This year’s report surveyed 2,000 businesses and, this time, 1,000 students. Leading firms including Coca-Cola, TikTok, John Lewis, Unilever and Mastercard confirmed that what they were looking for in graduates was the ability to communicate, analyse, adapt, problem-solve and think creatively. And this time, the report proposed a framework for how these skills could be delivered, including how to meet the need for lifelong learning to future-proof the UK workforce.

The report highlighted the success of the Creative Industries Council, a forum that brings together government and the creative and digital industries with a remit to tackle barriers to growth, including skills shortages. Co-chaired by the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, and the secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, the council provides a template for how to support the future skills agenda.

To deliver the skills for innovation the country needs to remain competitive, we are calling for the formation of a Future Skills Council, bringing together leaders from across higher education, industry and government through a similar forum, with education and business secretaries as co-chairs. Mirroring the structure of the Creative Industries Council would ensure a joined-up approach to delivering the skilled workforce that industry needs, with the minister for higher and further education sitting across both education and business departments.

It’s enormously encouraging to see that parliamentarians across all political parties are looking for ways to support business and ensure the country retains its competitive edge post-Brexit. The now former skills minister Alex Burghart set out the government’s work in this area when giving the keynote address at our Westminster report launch, while at the Times’ Commission on Education Summit, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves announced a Labour Party review aimed at making sure startups in the UK could reach their full potential. One of our review’s recommendations is that the higher education regulator, the Office for Students, creates an additional metric to support spin-outs and entrepreneurship.

At Kingston University we are so committed to future skills that we will be embedding them across the curriculum so that they are explicitly taught to every student in every programme in every year. Our university is top in the UK for graduate startups and we have a long track record of delivering technical and professional education. We’re therefore ideally placed to build this new approach into the traditional degree, and we encourage others to follow suit.

This does require structures being put in place to explicitly foster the development of these skills for innovation that can be delivered across a range of courses, tailored and personalised to match each student’s needs. For example, our first-year students’ learning pathways will include an individual diagnostic designed to develop, facilitate and measure the acquisition of future skills. This will be followed by a personalised suite of opportunities for students to apply these skills to their programme of study. We would like to see other universities take a similar approach, building in insight assessments, creative problem-solving and ways of thinking that may be foreign to the learner’s discipline.

Across the sector, the relationship between universities and business—be it through teaching, research, knowledge exchange and innovation or enterprise—has never been more important.

At the launch event for our latest report, I was joined by several of our undergraduate students, and the conversations they were having with MPs, ministers, lords and business leaders throughout the evening reinforced how clearly both students and sector leaders understand the need to have a portfolio of skills for innovation alongside real-world experience.

We all have a responsibility to ensure we are providing students with the skills to go out and contribute to our country’s economy, not just as it is now but as it will be for years to come.

Professor Steven Spier is vice-chancellor, Kingston University