Coventry University VC tells MPs to put skills “ahead of the curve” of UK industrial strategy

Coventry University’s vice-chancellor John Latham gave evidence yesterday to the UK parliament’s committee looking at industrial strategy, and called for skills to be at its forefront.

Invited in his role as chair of University Alliance, John told MPs in the cross-party committee for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) that the skills agenda needed to be ahead of the curve of the strategy, not following behind.

John said:

“Universities must engage. We need to look at new programmes and new opportunities, for example, around apprenticeship degrees. A good industrial strategy will provide opportunities for generations not just the next few years.

“There is a need to work with industry and business to upskill the existing workforce. It’s not just about undergraduates and postgraduates being job-ready and employed. There is a bigger group already in work in whom universities can invest and upskill. The ‘faculty on the factory floor’ partnership between Coventry University and Unipart is one example of this. Our students are part of that working environment but we also have four research teams there. They help bring ideas and innovation to market more quickly and nimbly. The partnership helps upskill the wider workforce.”

“We also need to expose school children to the workings of industry and business. Visits outside of school to see how business operates give young people ideas and inspiration. It’s in universities’ and businesses’ interests to capture those imaginations early.”

On the wider needs of an industrial strategy, John told MPs:

“A national strategy is welcome, but it needs a national and regional framework to make it happen. It has to be long-term, and understood within the UK and internationally. There’s a need to be clear about what we do, but also what we don’t. We can’t do everything to a truly world-leading standard and we have to focus down to get impact.”

In response to questions from the committee around innovation and the role of science and research, John said:

“Investment in innovation and research need to balanced. There is great value in adapting a product or making it better through innovation, not only creating new things through high-level research. Innovation is local. It starts in SMEs and in niche sectors. What a good industrial strategy needs is the assets and hubs across the UK to scale up those ideas.”

The BEIS select committee heard evidence on Tuesday 8 November on the subject of industrial strategy. Also present on the panel were: Kevin Baughan, chief development officer, Innovate UK; Celia Caulcott, vice-provost (enterprise), University College London; and Sarah Main, director, Campaign for Science & Engineering.

Coventry University is a member of the West Midlands Combined Universities (WMCU) and Midlands Enterprise Universities (MEU), both lobbying to put skills, innovation and research at the heart of economic development in the Midlands region.