Universities lead project to deliver largest-ever investment into HE technicians

A new project led by a consortium of eight Midlands-based universities - including Keele University - and industry partners is to shine a light on the expertise of their technical community by delivering a package of measures to support their career advancement and development.

Midlands Innovation’s £4.99million TALENT programme is the largest-ever investment into technicians in higher education, whose specialist skills often go unrecognised despite the crucial role they play in the success of universities and the growth of the UK economy.

As a highly skilled workforce, around 30,000 technicians currently underpin research, teaching, knowledge transfer and innovation at UK universities and many are researchers and educators in their own right, teaching and training students and researchers at every level.

Announcing the programme, Science Minister Amanda Solloway said:

“Technicians play a vital role across our universities, research centres and industry sectors. It is great to see that Midlands Innovation is leading the way in supporting technicians who work so hard across the UK to teach students and underpin innovation.”

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."

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

“Advances in research and innovation are a team effort. Technicians are vital members of these teams but have been described as the ‘invisible workforce’ and across the country we have an identified shortage of technical skills and roles. The sector lacks effective understanding of the role of technicians and strategic insight into future technical skills requirements.

"Through our collaborative programme TALENT, we’ll be generating new insight and knowledge on future sector skills requirements, investing in the development of our technical community and tackling the cultural challenges facing technicians. We’re thrilled to be working collaboratively with a number of partners on the TALENT programme, all committed to ensuring status and opportunity for the technical community”.

Professor Alec Cameron, Chair of the Midlands Innovation Board, Vice-Chancellor at Aston University said:

“I am delighted that Midlands Innovation has been awarded this investment. TALENT will shine a light on the important role that technicians play in our universities and will enable us to deliver a step change in the career development opportunities we provide to this vital workforce.

“In addition, TALENT is an excellent example of how universities can collaborate to innovate in their operation. Collectively we have over 2,100 technicians working in 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 issues such as 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.”

Jane Hubble, Laboratory Manager at Cranfield University, said:

“I have seen first-hand the benefits of working collaboratively across the 8 Midlands Innovation universities. We share and support each other in the delivery of our respective Technician Commitment activity and have developed new opportunities for technicians to engage with colleagues across the consortium, attend shared training, share best practice and learn new skills through a placement scheme. I am excited to take our shared activities for the technical community forward through the TALENT programme.”

TALENT is underpinned by a grant of more than £3million from the Research England Development Fund. The rest of the funding will be provided by the 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.

It builds on considerable work already undertaken by Midlands Innovation to advance the technician agenda, including the signing of the Technician Commitment which Keele pledged its support to; the establishment of the UK Higher Education Technicians Summit; a national conference for technical staff working in higher education and research, and the Papin Prizes, a series of awards to publicly recognise technical excellence in academia, as well as piloting a collaborative placement programme to enable career development opportunities for our technical staff.

Research England’s Director of Research, Steven Hill, said:

“Technicians are an understudied group in higher education, which means there is a real gap in our understanding of both their role and future skills requirements. We also know there is a growing shortage of technicians across all sectors, but these technicians are a vital workforce, the absence of which threatens the UK’s innovative strength and global competitiveness.”

TALENT will lead and promote change to enhance the status and development opportunities of technicians through three main themes:

  • Technical Talent of the Future will use a commission-based approach to investigate the technical skills and talent needed to support future research and teaching in the UK. It 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 that will be used to inform institutional planning, training activities, culture change and the UK Higher Education Technician Summits. The scope of the project will include the sector’s future need for technical talent, government policy implications and the impact of increasing focus on collaboration with business and other researchers.
  • Technicians as Partners will develop and pilot innovative ways of working to deliver culture change within HE to strengthen technical career opportunities and develop the effectiveness of the technician role within universities. It will encompass projects focusing on challenging the stereotypes around technicians and promoting the attractiveness of a technical career; promoting more diversity in the sector; equipping technicians with the skills they need to improve their presence on executive committees; studying best practice of equipment sharing between technicians; and exploring opportunities for technical knowledge exchange and collaborations with business.
  • Technical training and Empowerment will deliver a technical training package – both print and digital – with guidance and briefing notes on the creation of placement schemes and exchanges for technical staff, soft skills case studies, lessons learned and recommendations for ways of working. It will also include the establishment of the Technician Led Training Fund, that will offer a pot of cash that collaborative groups of technicians can assess to fund staff development on specific skills gaps.

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. www.midlandsinnovation.org.uk.