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Government industrial strategy proposes £170m investment in tech institutes to boost Stem skills

The Prime Minister has claimed technology training and skills will be one of the key areas the government will focus on in its bid to boost the economy post-Brexit

A focus on developing skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) is one of the 10 core approaches the government will take in its strategy for strengthening the UK economy.

Stem skills was announced as a focal point, alongside other targets such as R&D funding, supporting small businesses and encouraging trade, as part of prime minister Theresa May’s government industrial strategy.

The strategy, led by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), aims to build a “stronger, fairer Britain” in the wake of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

The strategy’s greenpaper includes proposals such as funding for developing tech institutes, expansion of specialist maths education and growing Stem skills.

One of the industry’s main concerns in the wake of Brexit is how the already dwindling market of skilled workers will be affected.

“The 2016 Hays Global Skills Index showed our IT and technology skills gap is getting worse, and has done for the past five years,” said Sarah Burnett, vice-president of Everest Group and chair of the BCS women’s group. “In the post-Brexit era, the UK must position itself as a centre of excellence in technology.”

Capital funding of £170m was suggested by BEIS to grow and establish institutes of technology throughout the UK to deliver high-level education in Stem subjects.

These institutes would act as part of a “new system of technology education” and replace thousands of lower-quality tech qualifications designed to give students the tech skills needed in their local area.

Many firms need candidates with a mixture of technical and soft skills, with the industry claiming collaboration between firms and local educational establishments could better ensure students are leaving education with the skills needed to fill roles.

Read more about Stem

New technology qualifications from the funded institutes of technology would focus on 15 “core” routes to better serve the skills needed from employers by the surrounding area.

“The UK has some of the best universities in the world and our schools are improving, yet for too long technical education for school leavers has been neglected – with large differences in skill levels between regions,” said secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy Greg Clark. “We must improve skills and opportunities so we can close the gap between the best people, places and businesses.”

Proposals to further tackle the Stem skills gap in the UK are due soon.

As part of this, the government may look to “incentivise” growth in the number of graduates coming from the Stem sector, and look into ways of encouraging the number of students taking higher-level Stem qualifications in under-subscribed regions.

Free schools are usually set up as not-for-profit academies that are not controlled by a local authority, and the industrial strategy greenpaper suggests using this free school model to increase the number of specialist mathematics schools across the UK.

Introducing lifelong learning

Technology is a high-paced industry that has caused disruption across many sectors, but such rapid change can also mean that tech skills need refreshing or could become outdated.

To ensure people’s skills are also adapting with demand, the government has proposed the development of community learning centres and maintenance loans for higher technical education to support “lifelong learning”.

As part of the government’s new system for technology education, the industrial strategy proposes introducing a new system for searching and applying for tech courses to give those looking for tech careers more support and information on proposed routes into the career they are interested in.

Approaches to closing the skills gap will be tested regionally through methods such as improving pre-school education, schemes to support attraction and retention of Stem candidates, and a focus on increasing apprenticeships.

Fixing the tech talent pipeline

Apprenticeships have been cited by industry experts as a good way to address the technology skills gap in the UK, by educating and training young people to fill the technology roles they need.

Many young people choose not to go to university, and the government proposes plans to “level the playing field” in the Stem sectors for these individuals.

Alison Vincent, chief technology officer for Cisco in the UK and Ireland, said the investment in Stem proposed in the industrial strategy may “help to shift perceptions and inspire the younger generation to take part in Stem subjects from an early age”.

The UK’s introduction of the new computing curriculum made it mandatory for children between the ages of five and 16 to learn concepts such as computational thinking, and was meant to address gaps in the Stem skills pipeline.

But Stephen Metcalfe, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, called on ministers to “get their digital act together” and criticised the government’s slow response to digital transformation and the skills gap.

“It’s absolutely right that digital skills are part of the industrial strategy, but the government’s recent response to our report on the digital skills crisis was both late and lacking in detail,” he said.

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