This blog was contributed by Andrew Croydon, Director of Skills & Education Policy and Examinations at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).
A new government, but the same old debate. How many students should go to university, and what courses should they study when they’re there? At one extreme, the Tony Blair Institute argues that 70 per cent of young people should be entering higher education by 2040, whilst at the other, a minister voices concerns about too many young people graduating in ‘Harry Potter Studies’.
At the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) we worry that this debate increasingly fails to capture what industry really needs from our further and higher education systems.
For our members, attracting students with the right skills is essential to keeping the UK at the forefront of a global industry. We are competing in an escalating war for talent, and our ability to develop vaccines to fight back against COVID-19, or discover new cancer treatments, all rests on our ability to successfully attract those with the right skills.
We regularly ask our members for their perspectives on the UK skills pipeline, and what they need to see more of across the education lifecycle to provide better support for their vital work.
We published our latest findings earlier this year, and last week I provided key evidence from this to the House of Lords inquiry into people and skills in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in the UK.
There were positives – our analysis found that several previous skill gap areas have improved in recent years, for example, in biological and clinical science areas. In the context of a country which has often struggled to attract and retain STEM teachers, this is hugely welcome news.
But we also looked at where our members were reporting skills gaps, which included areas such as computational chemistry, pharmacodynamics modelling and engineering in manufacturing. What these areas had in common was their applied nature – requiring young people to have a tech, data, or engineering background and to apply this discipline to the pharmaceutical industry. Member businesses also told us that the issue they were finding most was quantity, not the quality of applicants.
Which leads us to wonder whether we’re asking the wrong question. Of course, it’s essential to have students taking high-quality qualifications. But, too often, we assume that pharmaceutical companies only need Biology graduates or that publishing companies only need English Literature graduates. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
Modern industries require a wide range of skills – not only core transferable skills such as leadership and collaborative working – but also different domain-specific skills such as technology, engineering or commercial skills. Our sector alone is going to need over 100,000 more skilled people over the coming years.
Informed career choices are essential. We know career aspirations are often formed at school, but for many, those aspirations change over time, meaning high-quality career advice from primary schools to universities and colleges is vital – because the career routes for a graduate with technology skills are not limited to technology companies.
This discussion over how many people should go to university and what they should study is at its fiercest when it becomes a zero-sum game – a belief that too few people are studying for x qualification, which means that there won’t be enough people working in y industry. The reality is that the relationship between a given qualification and sector is not linear.
There is value in a wide range of routes into the profession, from traditional degrees to apprenticeships. We know of many graduates in non-STEM subjects, ranging from Arabic to International Relations who have transitioned into roles in pharma and are finding them extremely rewarding.
If we could take some of the energy from the current policy debate and redirect it towards practical, meaningful steps in career support, we believe government and industry could make real productivity gains.