Dr Sabrina Fairchild, GW4 Alliance Talent and Skills Manager, welcomes the TALENT Commission report, which has gathered new strategic insights into the UK’s technical workforce in higher education and research.
GW4 is an Alliance of four of the most research-intensive and innovative universities in the UK: Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter. We establish collaborative ways of working and innovative forms of support which makes us greater together than the sum of our parts. By coming together as GW4 we work at pace and scale, drive innovative shared missions, develop strategic partnerships and external collaborations, and deliver sector-leading professional development activities to support our talented people.
As manager of our GW4WARD programme for the past three years, I welcome the publication of Midland Innovation’s report, The TALENT Commission: Technical skills, roles and careers in UK higher education and research. Recognising the critical role technicians play in driving forward research and innovation programmes, GW4WARD has offered an integrated suite of career development opportunities for our technical staff since 2019 to support their professional development. In line with our institutions’ pledge to the Technician Commitment – a sector-wide initiative led by the Science Council to help address key challenges facing technical staff working in research – we have developed these activities to support all our technical staff to gain recognition, visibility and career development opportunities, and ensure the sustainability of facilities and technical skills across the Alliance. These initiatives directly address many aspects of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS)’s Research and Development (R&D) People and Culture Strategy, including the need for an additional 150,000 highly trained researchers and technicians by 2030.
Key Sections and Recommendations
This report provides a much-needed evidence base for initiatives like GW4WARD, as well as a new strategic framework that we will use to evaluate and enhance the GW4 programme, and a useful opportunity for our individual institutions to reflect on the progress they have made. I commend the wealth of information it provides that has been pulled together after almost two years’ worth of research and insight into technical skills, roles and careers in UK higher education and research sector.
The team delivering this research deployed a comprehensive array of quantitative and qualitative methods to compile the report bringing together data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and the largest national survey of technical staff, with feedback from focus groups, short-surveys of students and non-technical staff, calls for views and evidence, and commissioned reports.
The result is a set of 16 recommendations that underpin the broader vision of the UK as a global powerhouse in science, engineering and the creative industries, and the recognition that technical capabilities and capacity must be recognised, respected, aspired to, supported and developed to achieve this vision. We are currently using the recommendations to map our existing provision for technical staff across the GW4 institutions. We will then identify gaps in provision where GW4 can add value and deliver new sector-leading initiatives under the GW4WARD banner.
Beyond the recommendations, I appreciate the invaluable evidence-base that the report provides. The information on demographics, for example, in Section 7, offers a baseline for understanding local trends across GW4 where the four universities employ around 1300 technical staff. The discussion on professional development and recognition in Section 9 and 10 outlines what technicians want in terms of career development, skills development and recognition initiatives. Fortunately, this maps onto existing GW4WARD provision, such as networking and job shadowing opportunities, profiles and video showcases, and professional registration schemes but also offers new avenues to explore including leadership and people management programmes, mentoring schemes and placements. Our recently launched GW4WARD Collaboration Fund, for example, offers GW4 technical staff small awards of up to £500 to enable best practice sharing, knowledge exchange in equipment, techniques or resources, or attendance of training events where knowledge gained will be used to upskill the GW4 technical staff community.
GW4’s four institutions are all signatories to the Technician Commitment, and employ about 1,300 technical staff
Sections 11 and 13 present the emerging technologies and technical skill requirements and an audit of existing technical partnerships within the UK. Among those listed in the report is the University of Exeter-led South West Institute of Technology (SWIoT), but GW4 also hosts the University of Bath’s Institute of Coding (IoC), both of which are examples of existing good practice. Still, there is more that UK universities can do to meet the coming skills challenges and support partnerships between Higher Education (HE) and Further Education (FE) to ensure that the UK has the technical skills required to become a global research and innovation powerhouse. In the process, collaborations between HE and FE further address socio-economic disparities and associated equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) challenges for HE.
Although this report is clearly written with funders, universities, and research institutes in mind, I also appreciate the willingness and desire to empower technical staff in their own development. In both recommendations and the broader report, the Commission recognises the importance of technical staff engaging positively with current and future opportunities. Whether it is through our GW4 Technical Knowledge and Infrastructure Working Group, or our GW4 Technical Staff Webinar, I continually see the community’s willingness to support themselves and their peers. We need to harness this enthusiasm and work with our technical community to ensure that the opportunities developed meet their needs and create excitement to get involved.
Wider strategic context
The publication of the TALENT Commission Report also makes a critical intervention into wider strategic debates about research culture in UK HE and the broader research and innovation system, arriving alongside BEIS’ R&D People and Culture Strategy and UKRI’s draft EDI strategy. The commonality between the TALENT Commission Report and the R&D People and Culture Strategy can be clearly mapped in their overlapping recommendations. Both advocate for the sustainability and growth of UK research capabilities by using, supporting, and expanding routes into careers in research and innovation. They recommend providing mechanisms that encourage dynamic, varied, and sustainable careers that move across not only institutions, but also sectors. They highlight the need for specific action to address EDI challenges to create a positive, inclusive, and respectful culture that attracts a diverse workforce. They specify the need to ensure provision and access to professional development opportunities to ensure the workforce is properly supported in their career development. They identify the importance of recognition and visibility of all the people and activities that lead to excellent research and innovation as crucial to maintaining a positive research culture.
There are similar shared goals between the TALENT Commission Report and UKRI’s draft EDI strategy. UKRI’s objectives to foster an inclusive and diverse research and innovation system where they lead by example, create conditions for change, and have clear processes for monitoring, measuring and evaluating change, respond not only to the objectives set by BEIS, but also meet the recommendations set by the TALENT Commission.
The alignment of all three reports creates a unique opportunity for institutions and regional alliances like GW4 to think holistically about the programmes and initiatives they create. In particular, the commonalities between the documents have reinforced to me how, despite real and unique challenges impacting specific communities, there is often more similarity than difference. At GW4, this has been reinforced by how we have situated our provision for technical staff, GW4WARD, alongside a broader programme of research culture and environment support. In doing so, we have created opportunities to make connections and share best practice with colleagues across staff development, researcher development, technical and facilities management, and research development. In reaching across institutional divisions in this fashion, we will find new ways to address the capacity and cultural challenges within UK HE, as well as the broader research and innovation system.
The value of the TALENT Commission Report, therefore, is not only in the recommendations and findings it delivers, but also how it speaks to and provides evidence for a broader research and innovation agenda in the UK. I welcome its addition to these debates and I am looking forward to working with its recommendations and considering how it maps across initiatives as we develop our programmes to support researchers, technical staff and research culture at GW4.
The Talent Commission Report can be read in full here.