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Comment: Bring back polytechnics

Taking advantage of disruptive technologies will mean disrupting the education system itself.

Technology is shattering and transforming the world in equal measure, with the most exciting areas of innovation occurring at the convergence of disciplines, such as bioengineering or computational biology. And the pace of change is accelerating.

The possibilities thrown up by technological advance are exhilarating, chaotic and daunting. However, they raise a profound question for trainers and educators: how do we prepare students for such a fast-changing and unknowable future?

NEF: The Innovation Institute consulted with more than a hundred companies for its latest report, 'Inventing the Future: Transforming STEM Economies', to discover the impact of technology – and subsequent skills requirements – within STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) based sectors.

As well as a growing demand for specific competencies such as the ability to handle big data or rapid prototyping, some common themes emerged. Regardless of whether they are in biotechnology, civil engineering or aerospace, organisations are increasingly looking for a new breed – the technologist. Someone who is able to innovate and collaborate across several disciplines, spotting new product applications and moving seamlessly between sectors with minimal retraining. They will demonstrate not only technical competence, but also creativity, project management skills and business development flair.

Where does this leave STEM education? Limping several decades behind, in narrow academic silos that were defined decades or even centuries ago.

Learning is theoretical and not placed in context. Assessment and qualification models are outdated and create artificial barriers to an individual's development. For example, FE colleges continue to churn out carpenters and bricklayers and ignore the phenomenon of building information modelling, which will become a standard requirement on all government projects from 2016.

NEF's three-year review of over 70 FE colleges found the STEM curriculum was not fit for purpose in almost every case. In the worst examples, 80 per cent of course content was misaligned with industry requirements.

There is not enough talking, or exchange of information, between academia and industry, and the trust in what educational institutions are providing is steadily being eroded.

The UK remains a global leader in blue-skies research, but lost its way in the applied research that turns brilliant academic ideas into commercial winners with the closure of the polytechnics in the early 1990s.

How can this be put right? Coordinated regional STEM strategies led by local enterprise partnerships and Chambers of Commerce would go some way to redressing the lack of applied research for commercial gain in economic priority areas.

Some new universities and FE colleges could come together under the banner of 'regional polytechnics' to offer a wider portfolio of courses and services to local employers. There should be much greater exchange of personnel between industry and academia: local companies could run courses or departments as concessions, senior industry figures could sit on governance boards and help steer educational priorities. Lecturers should be given opportunities to spend time in industry to deliver real and relevant learning.

These polytechnics should take the role of 'innovation hubs', acting as magnets for investment, paving the way for differentiated clusters of expertise across the UK. This could not only raise the productivity and prosperity of regions but also protect the long-term health of local businesses.

To help fund this development, innovation tax credits should be extended to include technical skills development and specialist capital investment in education.

There has been much hand-wringing over the STEM skills crisis in past decades. Now is the time to take action. 

Professor Sa'ad Medhat CEng FIET is chief executive of NEF: The Innovation Institute.

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