Arc Universities

Student Panel member, Sam Osys, recently participated in a discussion on skills and learning in the Oxford to Cambridge region as part of the AUG Student Panel.

Featuring three specialists in the field, the talk provided valuable insights into current educational practices, the challenges faced, and future opportunities for skill development in this area. Read her blog about the event:

The focus of the discussion was on understanding the future of skills and learning, considering the impact of AI and automation, and exploring the role of universities in equipping students with relevant skills. The session aimed to gather perspectives on how these factors reshape education and workforce readiness. Dr Winifred Soribe, who moderated the discussion, opened by outlining the session’s aims and introducing the speakers: Clare Pike (Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education Enhancement at Anglia Ruskin University), Jim Gazzard (Leader of the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education), and Kelly Cox (Recruitment and HR Operations Business Partner at East West Rail).

Clare Pike shared a case study on Innovate Cambridge, a partnership involving Cambridge’s two universities, various employer organisations, and public and private sector partners, including local government. The Innovate Cambridge strategy aims to harness Cambridge’s innovative potential, recognising its global reputation for scientific discovery and economic impact. However, compared to global competitors like Boston and Silicon Valley, Cambridge underperforms in translating research discoveries into large-scale economic benefits for the region. Innovate Cambridge addresses this by focusing on five strategic pillars, with Clare leading the talent and skills aspect.

The initiative involves extensive consultation to address critical skills gaps and shortages, constraining business growth at all levels—from entry-level to high-skilled positions necessary for scaling businesses. Clare highlighted the complexity of the talent pipeline, emphasising the need for a systemic approach to create a coherent skills pathway from primary education to postdoctoral levels. The strategy aims to integrate and coordinate existing provisions, adding value by building collaborative networks among partner organisations.

Clare discussed the socioeconomic disparities within Cambridgeshire, where high and low educational participation and economic deprivation coexist. Innovate Cambridge aims to tap into this untapped talent, providing opportunities for underrepresented groups. The proposal includes creating an observatory to identify labour market intelligence, a brokerage service to facilitate training and apprenticeships, and enhanced mentoring for business growth. Pilot projects are already underway, addressing apprenticeship engagement on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus and exploring new models for flexi-job apprenticeships. The ultimate goal is to create a sustainable, scalable impact, retaining regional economic benefits and addressing skills gaps comprehensively.

Jim Gazzard emphasised the importance of education beyond traditional university pathways, highlighting the need for lifelong learning. He referenced Tony Blair’s 1996 statement about prioritising education, which led to 50% of young people attending university by 2019. However, he noted that this policy has not necessarily improved productivity, innovation, and efficiency in the UK. Jim pointed out that historically, the UK excelled in lifelong learning, particularly for older adults who didn’t attend university, with institutions like the Open University playing a key role.

Jim stressed the necessity of a holistic approach to skills and training, advocating for a system that supports continuous learning throughout an individual’s life. He mentioned the potential for people on the call to live until 100 years old, underscoring the need for skills and knowledge to be updated regularly. Jim argued that the focus should be on creating an integrated skills and knowledge network spanning a 60 or 70-year curriculum rather than concentrating resources primarily on those aged 0 to 25.

Jim highlighted the importance of community in learning, suggesting that education should foster social capital by encouraging collaboration and interaction among learners. He criticised the current focus on specific skills without considering the broader context and integration of knowledge pathways. Jim advocated a more flexible, lifelong learning model that values higher-order cognitive skills, networking, and social capital.

Kelly Cox, an HR business partner at East West Rail, provided an overview of her experience in HR, particularly in recruitment, workforce planning, and organisational development within the civil service. She discussed current projects, including graduate schemes and apprenticeships, to address the skills shortage and lack of diversity in engineering. Kelly stressed the importance of lifelong learning and continuous education, moving from the traditional degree pathway to a more flexible approach.

She also addressed personal branding and professional development, offering advice on how to stand out in the job market. Kelly suggested knowing oneself, building professional networks, and maintaining professionalism and ethics as crucial steps. She encouraged PhD students to reflect on their interests and motivations, use platforms like LinkedIn for networking, and consider starting their own communities.

The discussion on skills and learning highlighted the complexities and opportunities within our educational systems. Known for its prestigious institutions and strong academic reputation, the region is trying to align its educational practices with the demands of a rapidly evolving job market. Traditional academic pathways dominate, often overlooking the significance of lifelong learning and continuous skill development.

One of the primary challenges in skill development is the rigidity of traditional education systems. There is a notable lack of support for lifelong learning, making it difficult to motivate individuals to pursue further education. The gap in addressing the diverse needs of learners at different career stages further complicates the issue. 

Emerging trends in education and skill acquisition include integrating technology, such as AI-driven interview platforms, and the growing emphasis on flexible and continuous education. Concepts like the 60-year curriculum and the open-loop curriculum illustrate the increasing recognition of lifelong learning. Potential solutions involve creating integrated skills and knowledge networks that support continuous learning throughout an individual’s life. Emphasising higher-order cognitive processing and social capital in education is crucial. Graduate schemes and apprenticeships also play a vital role in addressing skills shortages and promoting diversity.

This discussion shows design professionals the importance of adapting to the changing educational landscape by embracing lifelong learning and continuous skill development. Staying updated with emerging trends and technologies is essential to remain competitive and innovative. Developing cross-functional skills, such as project management, leadership, and effective communication, is beneficial. Embracing new technologies and sustainable practices will be crucial. Building a strong personal brand and professional network can enhance career opportunities and growth.

Design practices can adapt by fostering a culture of continuous learning and encouraging employees to pursue further education and training. Implementing mentorship programs and creating opportunities for cross-functional collaboration can enhance skill development. Leveraging technology to streamline processes and promote innovation will also be important.

Reflecting on these insights, design practitioners should prioritise continuous learning and skill development. Embracing new technologies and sustainable practices will be essential. Building a strong personal brand and professional network can enhance career opportunities. Design firms should foster a culture of continuous learning, implement mentorship programs, and encourage cross-functional collaboration to adapt to the changing educational landscape.

Throughout my career, I have consistently pursued new learning opportunities, often diverging from the conventional career path to acquire new skills. During the discussion, I shared examples of colleagues who struggle to re-engage with learning after becoming comfortable in their roles. In today’s volatile world, expanding our skill sets is not only beneficial for our mental health but also crucial for future-proofing our careers.

I am privileged to work at NatWest, where employee development is strongly encouraged. This support has been instrumental in my pursuit of a PhD and in enabling my team members to undertake apprenticeship programmes, courses, and training. However, such support is rare in many organisations. Jim’s point resonated deeply with me:

“Organisations fear that if they train their people, they’ll leave. But think about what happens if you don’t train them and they stay!” This underscores the importance of fostering a learning culture within organisations. Until NatWest tells me to go, I plan to stay, primarily due to the emphasis on development and learning.

Changing the way adults perceive learning is crucial. Many of my friends don’t understand why I “waste” my free time on a degree, writing, or crocheting. They wonder why I don’t just “rest.” For me, boredom is the worst possible state. Learning something new and sharing it with others is what I love doing most with my “free” time. As my mother used to say, the main reason we go to school is to learn how to learn. In the internet age, we have endless opportunities to learn anything we want. The education system may have flaws, but it provides a foundation for lifelong learning and networking. With a combination of Google, common sense, and helpful people, we can achieve anything.

Read more blogs from Sam via her website here

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