FE leaders inspired by cutting edge industry practice

Headshot of Robin Ghurbhurun
Robin Ghurbhurun

One reason for the UK’s well known, longstanding technical and digital skills gap is the mismatch between curriculum delivery and what businesses require to thrive during the fourth industrial revolution (industry 4.0).

Teacher helping student with engineering project

Further education (FE) providers are struggling to attract lecturers with the latest industry knowledge, and industry is yet to systemically commit to upskilling professionals in the education system. Not all learners are equipped with the skills that employers need, forcing business and industry to spend time and money training up thousands of college leavers and graduates each year.   

Local skills improvement plans – a key policy in the government’s Skills for Jobs white paper – might help tackle this issue. As a sector, though, I think we could be more proactive in demanding that industry better collaborate with education providers on projects that will ultimately benefit them. 

The recruitment challenge 

In support of narrowing the disconnect, Jisc is arranging tours for FE leaders to visit cutting-edge industries. The first in the series began with a visit to Siemens in Manchester to understand how it connects the curriculum to industry. 

The day lived up to our expectations, providing a rich insight into Siemens’ world and its approach to digitalisation, sparking an open discussion on the opportunities and challenges facing the FE sector as it strives to fulfil its role within the skills supply chain.

One of the biggest challenges is a shortage of suitable staff.

As we know, one of the biggest challenges is a shortage of suitable staff. Can Siemens and other commercial players help upskill lecturers by offering training days and industrial placements?  

I argue that successful global organisations should consider providing these opportunities as investment in the future of the skills system and their own future workforce sustainability.     

Teaching in a virtual world 

Siemens’ Connected Curriculum brings together academia and industry by integrating industry 4.0 technology into HE and FE curricula. One of the key technologies demonstrated during our visit was the concept of the ‘digital twin’, a virtual machine, complete with computer-controlled systems, which can be tested and tweaked prior to commissioning the real thing.

In the same way that virtual reality is already used in some FE and skills providers to allow learners to practice expensive or hazardous activities, a digital twin is also a brilliant learning tool.

In the same way that virtual reality is already used in some FE and skills providers to allow learners to practice expensive or hazardous activities, a digital twin is also a brilliant learning tool. It provides experience of trial and error, encourages innovation and teaches soft skills such as online collaboration.   

There is scope, I think, for FE and skills providers to work together on bringing digital twins to the curriculum, in partnership with Siemens and others using this approach, so learners can emulate industry practice. 

Integrating systems and data 

Siemens also showcased its digital optimisation tool, MindSphere. Using advanced analytics and AI, MindSphere powers IoT solutions with data from connected products, plants and systems to optimise operations, create better quality products and deploy new business models. 

Perhaps this is something for Jisc to consider through our work in AI in tertiary education working in collaboration with the sector and industry? Or maybe the sector could collaborate on modelling a ‘digital twin’ FE provider by investing in existing digital optimisation tools to drive efficiencies, experiences and inform decisions? 

Over the coming years, I’m keen that Jisc continues to support FE leaders to work with leading industries such as Siemens to maximise learning opportunities for staff and also for learners, particularly through Institutes of Technology, on T-levels and developing higher technical qualifications. 

Most immediately, we are arranging a further visit for engineering curriculum staff to Siemens, this time to its manufacturing base in Congleton, Cheshire, which has a focus on sustainability – another key development area for FE and skills providers.    

Positive response and feedback 

Siemens’ Connected Curriculum lead, Dr Steve Jones, was ‘delighted’ by the visit from FE leaders and is keen for further collaboration. He said:  

“This event provided a useful opportunity to discuss the challenges and opportunities that digitalisation provides. We are committed to supporting both education and industry with these aspects.” 

Among FE leaders attending Siemens were Ian McCormick, director of IT at Derby College, and Jo Maher, principal and chief executive at Loughborough College. 

Jo Maher feels that digital twinning methodology is key to developing the engineers of the future and thinks it could also be applied in other subject areas. However, while acknowledging that innovation is necessary, there are obstacles, as she explained:  

“Ensuring the colleges have industry-standard equipment is an obvious barrier for many organisations, and the kit is only as good as our training, CPD and the acquisition of staff talent.  Creating ways to enable industry staff to work collaboratively with colleges, or be seconded in, will help to close the skills gap, but a fundamental shift in salaries is also required. 

“Innovation is required if we are to effectively serve our employer and community partners. We need to keep pace with technological change to prepare our students for the jobs of the future and for employment in high growth companies.” 

Ian McCormick said the visit had been “amazing and insightful”. Inspired to instigate change, he added: 

“This represents a fantastic opportunity for our curriculum teams to build a sustainable and innovative curriculum model that will provide the much-needed synergy between industry 4.0 and education 4.0 and address the many skills gaps across the sector.” 

Further information 

To help FE&S members with strategic decisions around digital transformation, Jisc has developed the online digital elevation tool, which allows senior leaders to self-assess their organisation’s current digital position against five key themes and to map their digital journey in each area against the digital elevation model. 

About the author

Headshot of Robin Ghurbhurun
Robin Ghurbhurun
UK managing director, further education and skills, nations, advice and training

I am the UK executive lead for Jisc’s FE and skills policy, stakeholder engagement, and services. I lead on Jisc’s strategy for supporting member FE and skills institutions with their digital transformation. This includes thought leadership, enhanced professional practice, data insights, business optimisation and elevating the student and staff digital experience.

In addition, I also provide executive leadership on our advisory and training services for further and higher education. I ensure Jisc has strategic engagement with Department for Education in England, Scottish Funding Council, Welsh Government and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland and other relevant agencies and digital suppliers. This enables collaboration to find the right solutions in areas such as edtech policy, digital infrastructure planning and investment.