Midlands Innovation is a strategic research partnership of eight research intensive universities in the Midlands. Funding was awarded by Research England in 2020 for ‘TALENT’ – a transformation programme to advance status and opportunity for technical skills, roles and careers. The TALENT Commission report was published in 2022. Here, Dr Helen Turner, Director of Midlands Innovation, introduces a series of HEPI blogs from the eight partner institutions.
As the start of the 2022/23 academic year begins, it’s timely to draw attention to individuals in universities who play a critical role in higher education and research.
Technicians are fundamental to research, teaching, knowledge exchange, infrastructure and estates maintenance, as well as health and safety within science, medical, engineering and the creative disciplines.
The roles within the technical community are incredibly broad and range from entry level apprentices and junior technicians to renowned specialist experts and senior strategic managers – defining the community is one of its challenges.
UKRI refers to a technician as someone who ‘makes a vital contribution to research and innovation, delivering goals of a project, maintaining and developing environment, standards, resources and facilities, teaching others and managing budgets.
Many will have been working throughout the summer to prepare for the start of this new academic year ensuring state-of-the-art equipment, studios and labs are safe and fully equipped and operational.
Strategic insights published in February 2022 within the TALENT Commission report highlighted the critical role that technicians play, identifying a lack of understanding at institutional level about the impact that technicians have on delivery and culture.
Within Midlands Innovation, we have found from experience that greater engagement with the technician workforce has reaped benefits in terms of pooling resources and equipment sharing, positive culture change, sharing best practice, problem solving and so much more.
The eight universities in the Midlands Innovation partnership have been championing the role of technicians for many years. Midlands Innovation established the Higher Education Technicians Summit and acclaimed Papin Prizes – the UK’s only conference and awards dedicated to technical professional development and celebrating technical excellence. It is a biennial event and 2023 will see the fifth summit taking place at University of Warwick.
All eight partner institutions were founding signatories of the Technician Commitment, and several initiatives empowered technicians to create a thriving network where technicians share best practice and collaborate.
You might ask why a regional university research partnership would choose to focus on their technical workforce in this way? For Midlands Innovation, the answer is threefold.
First, the origins of our collaboration are in equipment sharing and research efficiency. We established the first regional equipment-sharing database and hosted events designed to bring together research groups working on common facilities. We quickly recognised that it is the technical talent in our institutions that underpins this activity and to share access to infrastructure and encourage collaboration based upon access, we need to invest in our technical workforce and their networks.
Recently, we piloted a technician-led equipment sharing programme. Our initial findings have shown that empowering those who maintain and manage that equipment and train other users, helps to increase recognition of technicians within the wider research community improving research culture.
Secondly, we believe that some of the areas where regional university partnerships add value are where they use the proximity of the partnership to their advantage, delivering initiatives that would be more challenging to deliver if partners were distributed across the country.
We therefore decided to use technical placements and networking to increase the connectivity of our technical community. Our Technical Managers Strategy Committee provides a collective voice for technicians across the partnership, a supportive community on shared challenges, a platform for problem-solving together and oversight of these initiatives.
Thirdly, it is more efficient to do this work in collaboration. Designing learning and development programmes in collaboration spreads the cost and builds in added value from the networking and best practice sharing it enables. We have been able to deliver more together.
Building on our initial activities, we secured funding from Research England for the MI TALENT programme, which published the TALENT Commission report which we hope will have sector-wide impact. It collates evidence from across the sector showing technicians’ contributions to teaching and research, workforce demographics, career pathways and funding routes, and sets out a blueprint for the future of technical skills. I would encourage anyone interested in research culture to read the report which contains targeted recommendations for employers, funders, government and MPs, professional bodies and technicians.
I am delighted that our partners, Aston University, the University of Birmingham, Cranfield University, Keele University, the University of Leicester, Loughborough University, the University of Nottingham and the University of Warwick, have pledged to action the TALENT Commission employer recommendations within their institutions.
This includes taking a strategic approach to future technical skills and plugging any future skills gaps, addressing existing Equality, Diversion and Inclusion (EDI) challenges, costing technicians on grants and proposals consistently, broadening technical career pathways and expanding technician job families, making it easier to attract the best talent to create a diverse technical workforce.
We’re proud of the work to date and our Joint Statement, but, more importantly, we want to show the value of engaging with the technician community, not just at an institutional level but also through a wider collaboration. I think our approach with technicians shows how universities can work together in the future to invest in other parts of the research workforce.
Organisations who think more strategically about the future of technical talent, and all who contribute to the delivery of research, will make a valuable difference to the quality and output of research, and innovation and a collaborative approach will enable them to do so efficiently whilst also strengthening the networks and resilience of that talent.