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Employer-sponsored Education Deserves Government's Attention

21/11/2014 12:59 GMT | Updated 20/01/2015 10:59 GMT

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There is an old proverb, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime". While the proverb itself has perhaps fallen into cliché, its core lesson is no less important. That it is more worthwhile to teach someone to do something than to do it for them.

Employer-sponsored education is a modern example of this sentiment here in the UK. Companies who are prepared to invest in sending their employees to university know that they will benefit from improved knowledge and performance at work in the long term. Universities and employers have been strengthening their links for many years now, working in symbiosis to produce graduates with applicable skills.

As we approach the end of 2014 and the countdown to the General Election next year, the major political parties are beginning to set out their stalls. There has already been much talk of increasing apprenticeships, employer involvement and changes to higher and further education with the aim of raising skills level. However, whichever party is sitting in government by this time next year, they must have properly explored how powerful the existing university/business relationship is, and how to strengthen it further without eroding its foundations.

In the UK many students are sponsored by employers, both through day release and payment of tuition fees. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggest that in 2012/13 only 52% of students in higher education appear to be primarily funded by student loans and grants. All of the others are either employer-sponsored, funding their studies themselves and reclaiming the fees from their employer, or are funded by charities or other sources.

London South Bank University (LSBU) has perhaps the largest cohort of employer-sponsored students of any UK university. Over 4,500 LSBU students are sponsored on a range of courses through to Masters degree. Indeed the fact we have maintained almost a quarter of our numbers at postgraduate level - and seen some growth in part-time students when numbers in the sector as a whole in this area have dropped dramatically - is I believe due in part to the strength of our relationship with business and the professions. Employers know LSBU has the expertise to upskill their workforce, which is why more than 1,000 companies sponsor their students to study here each year, and why all of our courses are accredited or developed alongside the industry's leading professional bodies.

From our experience, what attracts students to employer sponsorship is the opportunity to "earn-while-you-learn" and to combine a quality assured education with the practical skills so desired by employers. Because students have an income and rarely require student tuition or maintenance loans, the cost to the taxpayer is also substantially reduced. Costs are shared between student and employer often with no reliance on the public purse.

My message to the political parties is simple. That business-university collaboration is already a powerful cord running through the structure of education in the UK, and this can be enhanced further with the application of two measures.

First, schools and careers services should provide better information and encouragement to pupils for whom this might be the most appropriate route to improve their education and skills.

Secondly, we need to ensure we are engaging employers. Whilst large companies (those with around 1,000 employees or more) find it easier to invest in education programmes, it is often harder for SMEs. A government-funded voucher scheme - perhaps operated by the Local Economic Partnerships - would help SMEs invest in education where the government has identified there is a national or local skills shortage. SMEs would be required to provide day release or equivalent, to pay an appropriate salary, and perhaps to retain the graduated student for a period after graduation.

It is my firm belief that it is imperative the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and the associated educational bodies develop a much clearer understanding of what collaborative partnerships in the area of employer-sponsored education already exist before any changes to the systems related to employer funding are made. Additional research and understanding of the field is needed to enable reliable evidenced-based decision making over rash policy making.