Businesses’ responsibility to higher education: scholarships for local communities

For the post-pandemic recovery to work, startups need talent and we need to harness our existing talent pools and give them the skills the new era of business needs

Access to education and youth unemployment have understandably been at the forefront of discussion over the past year, particularly with the global pandemic causing significant disruption.

According to a survey by the National Union of Students, 80% of students across the UK were worried about how they will cope financially after losing both work and support from their parents. A 2020 study also found that since the coronavirus pandemic began, young people in the UK are more than twice as likely to lose their jobs compared with older workers.

While COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated inequality, the issues are long-standing and deep-rooted. As such, they need a sustained, concerted effort across sectors to overcome. Businesses have a crucial role as part of this in supporting access to higher education opportunities in their local communities for young people in need.

‘Unlocking and nurturing talent’

Education and training are vital pathways for unlocking and nurturing the talent which will drive forward innovations and positive progress across all walks of life. Yet, too many young people lack the funds or connections to access the opportunities that open these doors to education and employment.

Without this access, the startup fast-growth revolution – often centred around technology – will leave them behind. By 2025, Microsoft Data Science predicts the UK will have a capacity of three million new technology jobs. It’s imperative businesses have the talent pipeline to meet this demand.

Business-ready talent

For the post-pandemic recovery to work, startups and fast-growth businesses need business-ready talent. We need to be able to harness existing talent pools to be found in the next generation. To achieve this, young people need to be taught the skills to meet business needs and drive innovation forward.

It’s not solely the responsibility of academic institutions to tackle the barriers to higher education opportunities. It’s also not an acceptable state of affairs for successful businesses to make a home in local communities, and then not engage with opportunities for nearby youth.

“We need to be able to harness existing talent pools to be found in the next generation. To achieve this, young people need to be taught the skills to meet business needs and drive innovation forward”

Businesses across all industries need to collaborate with education providers and engage closely with their local communities to make a tangible, long-lasting difference.

The value of scholarships and placements

Scholarship programmes, offered in partnership with academic institutions, are a fundamental way in which businesses can pioneer a solution. Alongside financial support, businesses can offer work placements – exposing young people to fast-growth work environments and enabling them to develop the skills that will support them in entering future-facing careers.

Starting with the local community for outreach and engagement is a model being implemented in East London, which can – and should – be replicated across the UK.

For example, Here East, the tech and innovation campus, is launching a new scholarship programme to do this. In collaboration with corporate partners and academic institutions such as Liverpool Media Academy and Staffordshire University, the scholarships are designed too support people from disadvantaged backgrounds from the local boroughs through undergraduate study, with financial support and work placements with businesses onsite included.

Nurturing the prospects of the future workforce

A word of caution – offering scholarships cannot not be simply seen as a way to improve and maintain a businesses’ own talent pipeline. The perspective must be broadened beyond a corporation’s own aims and ambitions – companies have a responsibility to look after the prospects of the incoming workforce generation.

Other nations, like the US, provide tax incentives for commercial businesses to support such initiatives to provide access to education with great effect. With minimal cost to the government, a targeted initiative could potentially unleash a new wave of opportunity that would help develop the technology skills required to drive the future growth of our economy in a more equitable way.

Ensuring people from disadvantaged or traditionally-overlooked backgrounds can benefit from a higher education unlocks pathways for them to enter roles and careers previously out of reach, applying their talent, diversifying workforces across industries, and allowing them to contribute positively to the direction of their own life – and lives of others. A diversity of thought and lived experience is a key driver in innovation and progress, whether it be in the latest efforts against climate change, or the latest creative movement in ballet.

“With minimal cost to the government, a targeted initiative could potentially unleash a new wave of opportunity that would help develop the technology skills needed to drive the future growth of our economy in a more equitable way”

It’s important to note that other routes into education and employment beyond university and higher education, such as apprenticeships, equally have an important role to play in this space. I’m incredibly thankful for the apprenticeship that kickstarted my own working career. However, when we focus in on access to higher education specifically, private organisations must not shy away from the responsibility they have to widen access by working in close partnership with academic institutions and engaging with the future of their local communities – for the benefit of society at large.


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