Employer engagement in HE: Building for the Future

Today I was at the HEFCE Employer Engagement Conference at The Studio in Manchester. This event brought together very many practitioners involved in working with employers to support leaning through, at and for work.

Across a wide range of sessions the messages I picked up were resoundingly as follows:

  • Working well with employers requires a long-term strategic approach that has buy-in and support at all levels of the organization. Without this efforts are futile.
  • Working with employers is about forming business-to-business relationships; it is about using a language that is unassuming and taking an attitude that is responsive and respectful. This doesn’t mean ditching the values that are traditionally held in HE – it s rather about a new kind of openness.
  • Dedicated units or teams to support employer engagement can be very effective at promoting confidence and competence of other staff. The link between such units and academic departments is critical since this is usually the expertise that companies want to access! Such a model was called hub and spoke when modeled by KSA. As an expansion of this I envisage a truly functional arrangement as more like a community of practice.
  • Working with employers requires a ‘can do’ approach. It’s OK not to have the answers, but a willingness to find solutions to meet a business need is critical. A provider centric approach will not be satisfactory to employers.
  • The resource put in to this area of work by HEFCE and institutions themselves has yielded some incredibly innovative, creative and diverse developments relating to curriculum, pedagogy, technology, infrastructure, data management and fostering different forms of collaboration.
  • Despite market analysis, in all its sophisticated forms, an academic’s personal networks can be a significant force in forming productive business facing partnerships. Building confidence such that academics feel trusting enough, of perhaps lesser known colleagues, to let them near their contacts is needed.
  • Costing workforce development arrangements remains highly problematic across the sector. Unanimously, it seemed, full economic costing approaches were seen as totally inappropriate. The emerging favoured model is an approach with understands the cost of this work and thereafter prices consistently and sensitively.
  • The benefits of this type of work need to be shown in a way that replies to a business need. How much is saved through staff retention? How much does the more effective practice bring to the business? We need to stop being wooly in this area.
  • Caution is needed  to avoid inter-organizational competitiveness to the detriment of all; examples of collaboration show that this can be a highly productive and mutually beneficial way of working with employers.
  • More is needed to professionalise this form of activity – to ensure that staff working at the interface of business and HEI’s are recognized and rewarded in a way, which is proportionate to their roles.

Today it was simply very rewarding to be able to see the collective impact of work undertaken in this activity stream. This included stories of learner transformation through students being given new opportunities, insight in to the volume of people that this work has touched (over 30,000 individuals) and a sense of the power of persistence amongst the people driving this work who press on even when they feel as welcome as a door to door salesman amongst some they seek to engage! It was also good to be able to share some of our own insights from the work undertaken around different approaches to collaborating with partners and particularly in relation to managing a diverse portfolio of work.

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