Disrupting higher education: a solution to digital skills shortages?

Written by Tanya Hemphill, Degree Apprenticeship Partnership Manager at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU)

Digital Skills Shortages in Greater Manchester
Greater Manchester has almost 55,000 people that are directly employed in the digital and tech sector. This is currently generating over 3 billion pounds GVA per annum, with the potential to grow to over 4.5 billion pounds over the next 10 years. However, 5% of jobs in the sector remain unfilled.

A third of companies in the digital and creative industry have had to turn work away due to skills shortages; a quarter of the contracts turned away were worth £50,000 or more.

The Solution: Digital Apprenticeships

Manchester Metropolitan University’s ‘Digital and Technology Solutions’ Degree Apprenticeship has been developed with a range of large and small employers, to ensure the curriculum is aligned to employer needs. This new three-way relationship between the University, student and employer means that the skills developed are responsive to technological change. It also attracts a wide range of students who want to earn-while-they-learn, so that they gain a degree without incurring debit. The student works full-time with an employer and also gains a degree over a 4-year period.

This gives employers the opportunity to attract new talent into their business and gives them the opportunity to ‘grow their own staff’, installing an organisation’s business culture and working style from an early age.The degree itself provides students with a core curriculum in the first year – a general overview of programming, web technologies and business systems and then offers specialist pathways, such as: business technology, software engineering, data analytics or cyber security.

The unique blend of offering a full-time job and gaining a University degree means that the degree apprenticeship attracts a different type of student than a more traditional University route. Students are not necessarily young people (our students are aged 18 to 45) and they can either already be employed in a company, or organisations can use the opportunity to offer a job and degree as a tool to recruit new talent.

Women in Tech

There has been a lot of discussion around the fact there is a lack of women in the tech industry. Reports have shown that increasing the number of women working in IT could generate an extra £2.6 billion to the UK economy every year.

MMU’s Digital and Technology Solutions degree apprenticeship is very unique in this respect – 40% of students in the first cohort are female. One of the reasons for this is that women may not initially chose an IT study route but when they are working within an organisation, they have shown natural ability in this area. Companies can then develop these skills further via a degree apprenticeship study scheme.
Another reason is that because the programme has a core curriculum in the first year, some students have been surprised to find that they are naturally good at particular skills they have never tried before, such as programming. They can then put these skills into practice and develop them further in the workplace.

Skills Shortages and the Digital Sector

All signs suggest that the digital sector has huge growth potential. However, without people with the right skills, the sector cannot achieve the growth it’s capable of. Although initiatives like school coding clubs will help this issue in the future (probably in about 8- 10 years), we have a problem in the interim period.

The concern is that trying to plug these gaps by offshoring creates another set of problems. Also, some experts believe that offshoring has, in part, caused some of the issues we currently have today
because we haven’t been nurturing the next generation of IT professionals.

If we do not work collaboratively with Government, education, and employers to address some of these issues, the UK will lose its place as one of the leading tech countries in world (we are currently around 7th). This would be a travesty – after all, it was a British computer scientist who invented the World Wide Web.

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