Bea Perks finds out about a new breed of foundation degree being developed for and by the UK chemical sector

Bea Perks finds out about a new breed of foundation degree being developed for and by the UK chemical sector

Chemists in the UK are key players in the country’s most strategic and value-added manufacturing sectors. From security of energy supply to transport infrastructure; from materials to chemicals and along the value-added chain to 21st century bioscience, British chemists are world leaders in the development and manufacture of high value-added products. 

These knowledge-intensive industries are characterised by the application of higher level skills under regulated conditions (safety, health, environmental, patent and intellectual property rights) and are a major source of employment in the private sector (see Chemistry World, February 2011, p64).  

A competitive future for the industries in a global economy, especially in the current economic downturn, requires the supply of higher level skills to extend beyond the traditional supply drawn from approximately one third of all young people who progress through the full-time higher education system. It requires wider participation of the higher education sector and flexible employer-facing higher level skills products for workforce development.  

Upskilling the workforce 

All of this was the reasoning behind a new breed of sector-specific foundation degree for the process industries, to upskill the existing workforce and provide an alternative route for people who don’t want to take the traditional university degree route.  

Working Higher is a collaborative project between the UK Physical Sciences Centre, Cogent Sector Skills Council and the University of Hull. The project is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) under their Employer Engagement Fund to develop a suite of flexible, work-based foundation degrees in collaboration with a consortium of higher education institutes and employers. Its success rests on collaboraton with stakeholders including the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies (Semta). 



Working Higher aims to develop a suite of work-based foundation degrees

By working as a consortium, the group ensures that the content of each foundation degree includes core skills common to the other sectors. This makes it easier for people to make career moves within the process industries - for instance if one sector should cut jobs while another grows.  

Champions of industry 

The consortium has appointed industry champions across a range of sectors, each of whom has the background and experience to act as a bridge between employers and academia. This ensures that the two work together, so that the content and delivery of the new foundation degrees is dictated by what industry actually needs.  

Each industry champion works with a lead university to develop the new qualifications - one each for the chemicals; bioscience and pharm a; refining and petrochemicals; nuclear; and polymers industries. 

The chemicals industry champion, Robert Green, has a 38-year background spanning roles in R&D, technical and operational support. Green is calling for more employers to get involved and help shape the new qualifications in line with their own needs. He is working with Manchester Metropolitan University on the chemicals foundation degree.  

Supply versus need 

The foundation degree proposal was designed to address the blockages that have resulted in a mismatch of supply versus need. It does so by using the specific strengths of a number of partners: Sector Skills Councils (need identification, demand raising and marketing to employers), the Higher Education Academy (engagement of leading practitioners and best practice) and institutions (programme development and delivery; project management).  

These partners engage with employers whose role is to share the risks and assist in programme development. To attempt to resolve the skills shortages across the whole of the science and manufacturing sectors is improbably ambitious. Rather, the project seeks to prove by means of pilots in some key economic sectors (commencing with the nuclear industries and rapidly followed by polymers, petroleum, chemicals and biosciences) that the current blockages can be overcome, in particular by minimising risks for the various stakeholders.