Launch of Midlands Innovation TALENT programme

The UK’s largest programme on higher education technicians commences, as the Chair of the country’s first policy commission focused on vital technical community is named.

A new project which could become the blueprint for the career advancement of 30,000 higher education technicians is now officially underway.

The innovative new UK-first programme is being delivered by Midlands Innovation, a partnership of eight universities including Keele, and is being backed by national bodies and key industry leaders.

The technical community in higher education has traditionally experienced a lack of visibility and recognition in the wider sector, but never has the role of technicians been more thrust into the national spotlight than now during the coronavirus crisis. Many technicians have been playing an integral role in the national COVID-19 efforts including organising PPE donations from academic institutions, such as Midlands Innovation partners, to NHS and other frontline services, creating thousands of gallons of hand sanitiser for hospitals and social care settings, supporting universities to quickly transition academic teaching online, and ensuring crucial services and ongoing academic research can continue.

Technicians play an integral role in academic research, including those that will right now be supporting the UK’s scientific response to dealing with COVID-19, and in the longer term how pioneering research and development can help support the recovery of the UK economy, and drive forward the Government’s aspiration for the UK to become a ‘science superpower.’

The £4.99 million TALENT programme, which was first announced by Amanda Solloway MP, the UK’s Minister for Science, Research and Innovation in late February 2020 as part of her first official engagement in the role, is a four-year programme which will be centred on the development of the technical community, piloting initiatives within the Midlands Innovation partnership before sharing learnings across the whole sector. 

The programme will deliver three strands: a policy-based commission approach focused on investigating and providing a set of national recommendations on Technical Talent for the Future, a Technicians as Partners pilot which will develop innovative ways to deliver culture change within HE to strengthen technical career opportunities, and a technical training programme which will include funding for groups of technicians across the MI partnership to access staff development and training to address specific skills gaps.

As well as rolling out the start of the TALENT programme, the Chair of the TALENT Policy Commission is being announced as Professor Sir John Holman of the University of York. Sir John is the immediate Past-President of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a Senior Advisor in Education at the Gatsby Foundation.

Professor Mark Ormerod, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost at Keele University, said:

"We're delighted to be part of the TALENT programme through our membership of Midlands Innovation, sharing our knowledge, skills and resources with our partner universities for the benefit of both Keele University, and the region and the UK as a whole.

"By supporting technicians through TALENT, our collaboration is supporting the advancement and development of a vital workforce, which will bring significant benefits to all areas of higher education and beyond."

Chair of Midlands Innovation and Vice-Chancellor of Aston University, Professor Alec Cameron, said:

“TALENT will shine a light on the important role that technicians play in our universities and will not only enable us to deliver a step change in the career development opportunities we as a partnership provide to this vital workforce, but it will act as an academic blueprint for the wider recognition of higher education technicians nationally.

“Midlands Innovation partners are extremely grateful for the hard work and efforts of our technical colleagues, and on behalf of our Board I would like to thank them for their fantastic contribution in supporting our institutions and local partners in responding to the Covid challenge.

“There is a national shortage of technicians who are often highly skilled specialists, and this shortage could dampen the country’s ability to help economic recovery through undertaking world-leading R&D, and in the longer term threaten to derail the Government’s Industrial Strategy aim to raise UK investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP. I am therefore delighted that we have been able to appoint Professor Sir John Holman to head the commission which will investigate the technical skills and talent needed to support future research and teaching in the UK.

“I know Professor Sir John will ensure the commission thoroughly analyses the sector’s future need for technical talent, government policy implications and the impact of increasing focus on collaboration with business and other researchers.”

Professor Sir John Holman of the University of York, said:

“I am honoured to be appointed Chair of the TALENT Commission. This is an exceptional time for higher education, and indeed for the UK as a whole. The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of academic research for making and implementing policy, and the critical role of technicians both in research and teaching.

“Now more than ever we need to understand the technician workforce in higher education, so we can better support them and enable technicians to give their best. I salute Midlands Innovation for taking this imaginative initiative, and I salute Research England for supporting it. I am looking forward to getting down to work with some of the leading experts in the country.”

The TALENT Policy Commission will gather evidence from a range of stakeholders including technicians, academics, university management, funders, students and policymakers before putting together a range of recommendations for the sector in a national report that will provide new understanding on the UK’s technical skills needs of the future.

Sir John will chair a board of commissioners from a range of stakeholder organisations, including UKRI’s Director for Talent and Skills, Professor Rory Duncan. Reacting to the news, Professor Duncan said:

“I am delighted to be part of the TALENT Policy Commission and I look forward to working with Sir John Holman.

“I have been clear on many occasions that I think recognising and promoting work of technicians is central to the developing UKRI strategy for Talent and Skills, and for the future health and growth of the UK economy. I really admire the thoughtful work embodied in the Technician Commitment and the TALENT project and I genuinely believe this can make important cultural changes for us all to benefit from.”

The TALENT programme is underpinned by a grant of more than £3 million from the Research England Development Fund. The remainder of the funding is being provided by the Midlands Innovation consortium university members as well as key partners including; the Science Council, Technician Commitment, Wellcome Trust, British Geological Survey, Rolls Royce plc, Unilever and Midlands Engine.

TALENT builds on the considerable work already undertaken by Midland Innovation to advance the technician agenda nationally, including the establishment in 2015 of the UK Higher Education Technicians Summit; a national conference which sees the country’s largest gathering of technical staff working in higher education and research, and the Papin Prizes, a series of prestigious awards which are only awarded biennially to the country’s finest technicians to publicly recognise excellence in the academic technical community.

The four-year project is being led by Kelly Vere, Director of Technical Skills and Strategy, at The University of Nottingham, she said:

“TALENT is an excellent example of how universities can collaborate to innovate in their operation. Collectively we have over 2100 technicians across our eight universities. We will be sharing information on the nature of our technical workforces, collaborating to create new development opportunities for our technical staff and trialling interventions to address topics such as research culture, EDI and representation of technicians. By doing this in partnership we can share different approaches and experiences whilst creating a vibrant, connected and empowered technical community.”

Steven Hill, Director of Research at Research England said:

"I am delighted to see the TALENT project moving forward at pace. Technicians play a central role in the research system, and this work to understand and develop that role further is vitally important. Research England is pleased to be able to support the project, through the Research England Development Fund, and I am looking forward to working with the team in the coming months."

Professor Alec Cameron, added:

“Together Midlands Innovation partners are looking forward to rolling out the TALENT programme over forthcoming years, and most importantly sharing our learnings with the wider HE sector for the advancement of technicians nationally.” 

Midlands Innovation is a world-class research and innovation partnership, combining the collective excellence of eight leading universities in the heart of the UK – Aston, Birmingham, Cranfield, Keele, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and Warwick. It unites the power of university research with the unique strengths of Midlands industry to drive cutting-edge research, innovation and skills development.