27/10/2014 12:36 GMT | Updated 27/12/2014 05:59 GMT

Mind the Skills Gap

Business and education. They should be perfect partners, with businesses relying on educational institutions to deliver individuals with the qualifications and skills they need to flourish, and educational institutions maintaining their relevancy by working to make sure they understand and reflect those needs in courses offered.

It should work. But at the moment, this relationship is under strain.

NEF: The Innovation Institute, a British think tank, recently shone a spotlight on this issue with a report that looked into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) sectors and the skills they are looking for from graduates. The report found that few courses are actually meeting industry requirements and are therefore not producing graduates that are 'job ready'. According to Professor Sa'ad Medhat, chief executive of NEF: The Innovation Institute, industry's "trust in what educational institutions are providing is steadily being eroded."

Professor Sa'ad wants change. And he's not the only one. Three-quarters of British businesses (not just in STEM sectors but across the board) believe a significant skills crisis will hit the UK within the next three years if nothing is done to remedy the disconnect between business needs and educational offerings. But what exactly can be done?

Greater levels of communication between businesses and higher education organisations to ensure course relevancy is a must. But is this enough? I'm not sure. The truth is there aren't enough courses that integrate "real world" workplace experience and practicalities and even where there are, the students aren't necessarily applying for them like they used to.

I'm referring particularly to part-time students. Historically, the UK economy has relied heavily on part-time higher education. Comprised largely of mature, employed students looking to upskill - part time students are prized by potential employers because they bring three important cards to the table: qualifications, skills and employability. The latter comes from an ability to implement their theoretical knowledge directly to workplace scenarios as they learn. They do graduate job-ready.

When it comes to lessening the skills gap, these older part-time students are an obvious answer. Or at least, they were.

During the past few years, the economy struggled, tuition fees went up and part-time students began to find it difficult to afford and access higher education courses - particularly courses that required significant classroom attendance. It's not hard to see why the UK has experienced such a massive decline in this particular student group. Some estimates suggest that around 100,000 fewer part-time students per year have applied for undergraduate courses since 2010.

At the same time, universities have focussed their efforts on attracting full-time students, with many actually ceasing part-time courses previously offered in partnership with colleges.

I'm not alone in suggesting that part-time students could provide a vital remedy to the skills gap. It's a debate that has been bubbling for some time, and with so much recent publicity around the topic, it is reaching boiling point. And yet still, not enough is being done to encourage this group to return to learning. It doesn't have to be complicated; simple things can make a big difference, such as raising awareness of the funding options now open to part-time learners. Tuition fee loans - with the same pay back structure afforded to full-time students - have been available to part-time students since 2012 and yet few actually know about this. Greater publicity of this fact would certainly have an impact.

But affordability is just one element. How else can we make it easier for this group? Course accessibility is one way. The fact that most part-time students are working means we need more courses that can be accessed when it's convenient for the student. It's why online learning has historically appealed to this group. But even here, more can be done.

For example, at RDI we've developed a new "blended" learning model - part online, part on campus - to ensure that students who feel they need "face-to-face time", but like the flexibility of online study, don't have to miss out. We're working with FE colleges across the UK to make sure it happens.

Collaborations like this can and will make a difference but not if they are in isolation.

If we are serious about ensuring that part-time students remain a valuable asset in the fight to fill the UK skills gaps - and I think we should be - all higher education institutions need to dedicate a little more time and effort to this particular group. We have a lot to offer them and they have a lot to offer the economy. Perhaps a shared goal of boosting part-time student numbers is exactly what's needed to bring the business/education partnership back on track.