Universities: we can’t close the UK’s digital skills gap on our own

Universities and colleges have appealed for help in equipping young people with digital skills, admitting they lack the resources, knowledge and infrastructure to tackle the UK-wide tech talent shortage on their own.

Vice-Chancellors and Principals at many higher education institutions across the country have told Microsoft students are under more pressure than ever before to ensure they graduate with digital skills that employers are looking for. However, one Deputy Vice-Chancellor admitted that “trying to develop students’ digital capabilities alone is not going to work”.

The findings have been included in a new report from Microsoft and LinkedIn – DEGREE + DIGITAL How today’s UK academic institutions can equip students to thrive in tomorrow’s workplace – that lays bare the work that the UK still has to do to close the digital skills gap.

Paul Philips, Principal and Chief Executive at Weston College, said: “There is a huge pressure on younger students from their parents to make sure they are on a solid route to employment. I have never seen it so great as now.”

A Deputy Vice-Chancellor at another higher education institute admitted: “The university trying to develop students’ digital capabilities alone is not going to work…I need to offer digital capabilities to our students and to our employees, but I need help to do it.”

The report found that the vast majority of senior leaders at universities and colleges are looking for support in preparing young people for a digital workplace, where the skills required are quickly evolving. These skills range from being able to confidently use documents, presentations and spreadsheets to at least a working knowledge of data, AI and Cloud.

Read the full report

However, there is a stark mismatch between what employers are looking for and how students are being prepared for the workplace. This is where partnerships between educations and industry – including companies like Microsoft, which has developed Career Coach and recognised professional certifications – can help.

Dr Derek Foster, Programme Leader, Computer Science at University of Lincoln, said: “We have to ensure that our students are best equipped when they graduate, not only with the degree programme, but [also] offering them employability opportunities around certification.”

As technology changes, the companies and organisations using it have to change, too, in order to remain competitive. A Microsoft study from 2020 found that 80% of UK leaders believe investment in digital skills will be important to the country’s economic recovery following COVID-19, while 78% also view a large pool of digital talent as essential to driving UK competitiveness. However, more than two-thirds (69%) of UK business leaders believe their organisation is currently facing a digital skills gap, exposing the country to the risk of being left behind as technology changes the world’s economies.

As well as being held back by a lack of resources and knowledge, universities and colleges are also being hampered by budget restrictions, a difficulty in knowing what employers are looking for and the fast pace of digital change.

For example, in 2018 LinkedIn revealed that the top three digital skills companies were looking for were cloud computing, statistical analysis and data mining and middleware and integration software. In 2020, that had changed to blockchain, cloud computing and analytical reasoning.

However, it is not only technical or IT-related skills that are in demand. Nearly every job in every sector now requires digital competencies as well as soft skills, like team working, critical-thinking, communication and leadership. More than ever before all students need access to relevant, up-to-date advice on how to futureproof their education by aligning their chosen area of study, alongside their skills development, to those that are required in the workplace.

Alex Warner, Principal at Milton Keynes College, said: “Digital is not going anywhere. It is only going to grow. Irrespective of what discipline that you go into, you are going to need to learn to work with digital technologies. Is every nurse going to have to be a data scientist? Absolutely not. Is a nurse going to have to be able to read the warning signs, because actually the data that is informing their ward is saying that patient X is going to need more care than patient Y today? Yes.”

To support universities and colleges with digital skills, Microsoft and LinkedIn have developed three ways to accelerate digital transformation and augment the opportunities institutions offer their students:

  • Personalised career coaching through Career Coach. Developed by Microsoft in partnership with LinkedIn, this tool provides students with personalised career guidance to help them increase their employability
  • World class curricula and professional certifications. Microsoft, through Microsoft Learn, along with LinkedIn Learning can help universities and colleges bolster traditional subject courses by providing extra modules and professional certifications centred around digital capabilities that can ultimately be integrated into traditional courses across all subject areas. LinkedIn data shows members with a Microsoft Professional Certification on their profile are 2.4 times more likely to be hired
  • Boosting workplace productivity. Every job requires a level of digital understanding and competency and Microsoft’s professional certifications and learning curricula can help to ensure that every student that graduates from higher or further education has the skills and expertise to thrive in a modern, hybrid work environment.

Chris Rothwell, Director of Education at Microsoft UK, said: “For the UK to lead the way as an economic powerhouse we need to equip young people with the digital capabilities employers are crying out for that will help us continue to invent and innovate. The combined expertise of industry and academia has the power to unlock a new kind of education experience that combines learning with employability skills and helps academic institutions blend the academic and industry skills required. By working alongside further and higher education institutes Microsoft can help teaching keep pace with technology changes and ensure students learn the skills they will need from day one in the workplace. Equally importantly, we can make sure today’s students are prepared for the workplace of the future, which will rely ever more heavily on advanced technologies including AI, data and cloud computing.”

To learn more about the findings, read the full report here.