The final recommendations of the European Commission’s Strategic Policy Forum on Digital Entrepreneurship stresses the need to ‘up-skill and re-employ’ the workforce in order to close the skills gap caused by technological innovation and the rise of digital tools used in the workplace. Described as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, these rapid developments cause some jobs to become redundant, while others require an updated set of skills. Combined with the potential challenges of the European landscape with an aging workforce, the need for a coherent approach to staff training appears even more urgent.
European universities hold great potential in addressing this agenda with their competitive strength in research and teaching. However, the research in the State of University-Business Cooperation in Europe project shows that the extent of university-business collaboration (UBC) in the area of lifelong learning is far below the level desired by European policy makers.
More than 70% of the academics and 50% business representatives surveyed reported they are not involved in any collaborative educational activities in the area of lifelong learning, e.g. executive education, industry training and professional courses for business people. What is more, HEIs ranked the level of lifelong learning program development the lowest among other UBC structures, such as career services, technology transfer offices, or incubators. As for businesses, only 10% of the representatives indicated the availability of lifelong-learning programmes.
While this being the case, there is an unexploited potential for European businesses to perform at least 10 times better, and create 400,000 to 1.5 million new jobs if they would upskill their staff and adopt digital technologies. Along the same line, there could be up to €2,000 billion added to GDP in the EU over the next 20 years if the share of scale-ups would match that of the US. Such growth requires SME staff to be equipped with the skills of entrepreneurship, leadership, and digitalisation – combined with the right financial regulatory frameworks.
Macron’s recent call for the development of like-minded university networks to offer lifelong learning programs and the Commission’s proposal to create the 2025 European Education Area to boost innovation have gained a wide media coverage. However, the European emphasis on such provisions is not new. There is already a strong policy environment that target skill developments amongst professionals, including Europe’s SMEs, to help achieve the digital transformation and growth in the competitive global markets. The 2016 report Upskilling European industry: New operational tools wanted makes recommendations on the launch of ‘company, sectoral, regional, and multi-stakeholder digital academy initiatives’. Similarly, the 2016 New Skills Agenda for Europe calls for stakeholder support in creating organised learning environments for SMEs.
In comparison to this strong policy emphasis, the reach of the actual training opportunities offered to the European SMEs remain rather limited. The EIC SME Instrument provides funding to only a selected group of SMEs with potential to growth that is supported with free training, access to fairs, and business acceleration services. Affiliated coaches help SMEs to progress over the life cycle of their innovation, from idea to proof of concept, to first pilot application and upscaling and expansion. In a more ad-hoc manner, Enterprise Europe Network offers guidance to the SMEs with global partnerships and international market growth via experts based in local contact points.
This shows, there is room for collaborative advancement. In order to create a sustainable transition towards upskilling European industry, these efforts can be, and should be further backed by universities through developing more lifelong learning programmes targeting SMEs and larger corporates.
What are some of the current examples from the European landscape that could set an example of UBC in lifelong learning?
Acknowledging that corporate training is key to develop a culture of innovation and an important tool for the pursuit of the company’s strategic goals, the leading European house appliance manufacturer Gorenje Group founded the in-house Corporate University of Gorenje (CUG). The group cooperates with three renowned higher education providers, as Chalmers University of Technology (Sweden), University of Ljubljana (Slovenia), Delft University of Technology (The Netherlands) in designing education and training programs, called ‘academies’ within the university. Currently, CUG offers five academies that target topics ranging from development of entrepreneurial skills, leadership, and product creation to digital transformation processes.
Embedded into university structures, the Institute for Work Based Learning at University of Middlesex has been exploring ways to advance the skills of industry professionals, for over 20 years. The institution designs both customised and cohort designed programs in the form of short courses to doctoral programs. The university accredits the in-house training of external organisations, as well as the experiential learning experience of professionals with no higher education degree. The programs are funded by a mix of government and business organisations, as well as participants covering the costs themselves in some occasions, or receiving scholarships from charities and public funds.
Similarly, the Open University of Reykjavik University provides programmes and courses for executives, specialists and managers from industry, in the fields of technology, business and law, the areas in which the university is specialised. The unit annually offers over 400 courses, with an average of 15-20 participants. The duration of the courses vary, ranging from three-hour to nine-month programs. Participation in the Open University programmes is mostly financed by companies to raise their job satisfaction of their employees, and keep good employees for longer time within the companies. Examples of successful course design and implementation include those prepared in collaboration with the national accountant association, and Icelandair.
The lifelong learning program implemented by the Gorenje group, as well as the customised solutions generated within the good practice case universities are a clear indicator of the untapped collaboration opportunities waiting to be seized by more European universities. The need for a better and greater offer of lifelong learning programmes is acute, for the businesses to be able to perform their full potential in the increasingly competitive global market. To address this demand, universities should take a more pro-active approach, by reaching out to the regional SMEs to collect information on their skill development needs. Without doubt, such approach requires targeted steps taken within the universities as well, including preparation of the academics to develop and deliver new teaching content. However, with the right mix of bottom up and top down efforts, the universities can overcome these initial challenges, and take steps towards realisation of mutual goals.