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Transforming the UK’s Technical Talent: An opportunity for the HE and research sectors

  • 10 March 2022
  • By Debra Humphris

Debra Humphris is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Brighton and was one of the Commissioners on the UKRI-Research England funded TALENT Commission, a national policy commission delivering strategic insight into the future of the UK’s technical talent. 

Collaboration isn’t always easy in a competitive sector. But in the current higher education and research landscape, more strategic thinking by institutions, funders and policymakers about workforce requirements could be the key to unlocking real opportunities for growth and innovation.

The TALENT Commission, part of the UKRI-Research England funded TALENT project, brought together a diverse group of Commissioners, including Vice-Chancellors, technical staff, funders, learned societies and academic colleagues. The goal was to collaborate on a major report to assess the future need for technical talent to meet demand and the skills needed to support the growth of emerging technologies.

It has been a privilege to join this 20-strong team led by Professor Sir John Holman to publish a landmark report that I hope will act as a blueprint for the future of the UK’s technical workforce in higher education and research. 

The TALENT Commission presents new insights into the UK’s technical talent where there has previously been a paucity of literature and data, specifically around the definition of a technician’s role, understanding entry routes and limitations on workforce demographics. Never before has there been an investment of this size to understand technicians’ roles and impact on education, research, innovation and knowledge exchange

I have seen first-hand the critical role that the technical workforce played within my institution throughout the pandemic. From safely shutting down studios, workshops and laboratories, continuing critical research, supporting remote laboratory teaching and helping to bring students and researchers safely back onto campus. 

The technical community is vital to higher education, research and innovation. Our country’s universities would not be able to function without the skills, expertise and experience of our technical colleagues, yet the workforce and its impact is little understood. This is further compounded by a narrative that seeks to separate technical and academic skills – which does not reflect the reality of how academics and technicians work together toward the same goals. 

The sector is under increasing pressure: student numbers are rising whilst the number of academics remain stable. The TALENT Commission identifies opportunities to upskill, strengthen and retain technicians who have a direct impact on the quality of education provision for our students, and therefore contribute to student retention, student progression, and student employability.

There are 16 recommendations presented in the report which provide a roadmap to achieving a bold vision. The UK aims to be a global superpower in science, engineering, and the creative industries, enabled by its technical capability across academia, research, education and innovation. As such, technical skills, roles, and careers must be recognised, respected, aspired to, supported, and developed. 

This vision can only be achieved through collective action across the sector, which is why the recommendations have been tailored for employers of technicians, funders, government and policymakers, professional bodies and learned societies and the technical community themselves. 

Universities and employers of technicians are vital to ensuring the continued development and sustainability of the technical skills base in the UK. In fact, employers who engage and invest in their technical community will retain and attract the best talent. Greater collaboration with the technical workforce by involving them in decision making processes will ensure staff feel, and are, represented and included. Likewise, involving technicians throughout the process of recruiting technical roles will diversify and strengthen the workforce. 

Research funders play an integral role in setting the frameworks by which employers and professional bodies allocate resources and assign priorities. The TALENT Commission recommends funders provide transparent guidelines on costing technical staff within research grants and facilitate investment into technical apprenticeships and traineeships, with a focus on including apprentice positions on major infrastructure investments. Investment into initiatives that target equality, diversity, and inclusivity specific to technical communities will create opportunities for a more diverse and inclusive workforce. 

Recommendations which are likely to have the greatest impact on delivering the commission’s vision to become a superpower in science, engineering and the creative industries are those which help to broaden career pathways for technical staff. 

Government and policy makers have the influence to open up academic and vocational pathways into technical careers. We need greater clarity on the role of technicians through a new, simple and fit-for-purpose classification for technical roles in higher education and research at all levels. Mandating the collection of workforce data by regulators for sector-wide analysis will ensure the UK has the skills to meet demand for the future. Exploring the possibility of adjustments to the Apprentice Levy to allow flexibility regarding how it can support upskilling of technicians across organisations could further strengthen the sector too. 

Change takes time. The University of Brighton is a signatory of the Technician Commitment, a national initiative which ensures the visibility, recognition, career development and sustainability for technicians working in higher education and research. This initiative has engaged with more than one hundred institutions who are collectively helping to make tangible impact in just five years.  

The Commissioners and I believe the vision outlined in this report is one which is achievable and will bring far reaching benefits to institutions, communities and the economy, if we’re all committed to transforming the UK’s technical talent together.

Read the TALENT Commission report here.

See HEPI’s recent blog post, ‘On Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: A Call to Action for the UK Higher Education Sector’ . Dr Uilleam Blacker from UCL shares how the UK can better support Ukrainian students and academics.

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