From education to employment

From Intelligent Colleges to 3D Printing – it all happened at Innovisions 2011

NEF CEO Sa'ad Medhat

New Engineering Foundation’s Conference Innovisions played host to just over 200 educational and industry leaders keen to discuss the future of Further Education. Top on the agenda was the launch of NEF’s report ‘The Intelligent College’ – a long awaited paper that brings together contributions from business and industry, HE and FE, and provides a model detailing the characteristics of what a college of the future should have to be truly ‘intelligent’.

NEF’s chief executive, Sa’ad Medhat, said: “Intelligent Colleges will no longer react to funding, inspection and national initiatives but will instead create their future through the dynamism of horizon-scanning, enterprise, knowledge exchange and civic leadership.”

He added: “Intelligent Colleges will respond to the needs of Industry rather than the demands of Government, they will utilise both their physical and intellectual assets to become an indispensable first-choice partner to business and industry.”

Alun Francis, principal of Oldham College, told delegates that, on his journey to London for the conference, he had read and then subsequently sent via his iPad the Intelligent College report to all his Governors, suggesting that this was exactly what the college needed to “get its head around as it was the future of FE.” He reflected on a past where FE had to operate under obscure and complex rules which he termed ‘FE-ology’. However, the past two years had seen huge change in the sector, with FE colleges now having a clear remit to focus on the needs of learners, industry and the economy.

“Colleges need to take on the challenges of their own local economy by providing radical solutions for young people and closing the skills gap once and for all,” he said.

These challenges were being met head on by Malachy McAleer, director of Southwest College Northern Ireland, who outlined how the college was driving economic and social well-being in Northern Ireland. The college has developed the only dedicated, purpose-built STEM centre of its kind in the UK and Ireland. The facility is a specially designed state-of-the-art teaching facility and exhibition space, focused exclusively on delivering educational and instructional activities in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). The college has also embraced new technologies and had recently experimented with virtual teaching; results were encouraging, particularly the 100% attendance rates.

New and emerging technologies formed the underlying theme at Innovisions. Mike Pilbeam, director at storage solutions provider EMC2, introduced cloud computing as “the next wave of opportunity”, saying it provided an unprecedented chance to break into the untapped “mine of ingenuity” in the FE sector. Pilbeam showed that these new ways of working enabled rapid incubation, with companies being able to enter the market quickly and cheaply. He added that clouding computing was something that colleges should all be exploiting.

Jo Lopes, head of technical excellence at automotive giant Jaguar Land Rover showed a glimpse of the future for hybrid supercars (0-60 mph in 3 seconds!), and he gave an interesting insight: A luxury car has 100 million lines of code compared to a highly advanced aerospace craft such as a F-22 raptor that has only 1.7 million lines. He added that “the reason for such a huge amount of code is the need to make the complex simple. We need clever engineers to make something highly complex happen at the touch of button. Unfortunately, a lack of engineers is a significant barrier to growth. There is a need in the automotive industry to reduce overall complexity, and tie-ins to cloud computing and other such innovations could be the way forward”.

3D printing came alive in the speech by Marc Saunders, director of manufacturer Renishaw. He illustrated the process of additive manufacturing, which uses special metallic powders and a selective layer melting process to build up components, literally layer by layer, to form such artefacts as a video monitor arm in a 1st class cabin to hip joints. Unlike traditional (subtractive) manufacturing, this process enables the rapid design of internally complex components that would have before taken longer to develop, required precision tooling and been costly to produce. Still a long way off, but maybe, in the future, ‘downfabbing’ will take over from downloading.

Meanwhile, David Hughes, head of professional development at energy firm E.ON, recounted his experiences as an electrical apprentice, and how, by the lack of a progression path, an industry he was passionate about lost a talented individual (although later he joined again), and the fact that this situation hadn’t changed some 25 years on. Hughes said the energy industry was changing rapidly, and skilled technicians were needed to meet demand – some one million smart meters have to be installed by 2014 – and it was down to partnerships of companies and colleges to develop creative “pathways that prove competence and provide excellence”, so that talent in the industry did not leave.

In a debate on Higher Apprenticeships, John Chudley, director at the National Apprenticeship Service, stressed the need for everyone to be “visionary” about what a Level 6 and 7 Apprenticeship frameworks might look like, and to “move away from just falling back on degree structures”. Hazel Elderkin, head of Apprenticeships at British/Dutch conglomerate Unilever, stated that for Higher Apprenticeships to succeed “they needed to work on the image”. The panel of industrialists agreed that Higher Apprenticeships should be seen as an alternative progression pathway to achieving highly skilled, highly paid jobs.

Throughout the day, industrial leaders reiterated the severe skills gap in their respective industries, be them automotive, energy, advanced manufacturing or ICT, and the need for FE providers to address these gaps. The NEF’s Industrial Fellow Scheme (IFS) was recognised by all industrial, educational and government speakers as being crucial to technical updating, and it was acknowledged that the IFS scheme, now in its 7th year, has brought enormous benefit to colleges and companies alike.

The value of the IFS scheme, which provides grants to FE lecturers to go into industry for technical updating, was brought to the fore by three IFS Fellows from Stockport, Mid Kent and Forth Valley colleges, who with their industrial partners Buro Happold, MHS and Roslin Cells, respectively, recounted their experiences, and showed that their industrial placements had been the catalyst for change.

If you are in an FE college and want to apply for a grant through the Industrial Fellowship Scheme for 2012 – click here. The theme for 2012 is STEM Innovation at the Heart of Wealth Creation.

(Pictured: NEF CEO Sa’ad Medhat)

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