I spent 24 hours with the Oil and Gas industry in Aberdeen earlier this month, in the North East of Scotland. It is wonderful to look into the window of other people’s worlds, even if for a short period. This trip came about when I accepted an invitation through the good offices of the OU Scotland to an event for the industry with a range of universities organised by OPITO: the Oil and Petroleum Industry Training Organisation. For me this was an element in the what we call here engagement with employers, that is to say sitting down with employers and working out with them what they need for learning and development, rather than the more simple model that we already do well which is to propose that they use the courses and awards that we already have. Employer engagement is a major agenda here for Higher Education in the UK, driven principally by government and supported by funding. It demands significant cultural change for many universities as it invites business and public sector organisations to share in the development of the curriculum that we teach. It does not represent an overall change away from the broader curriculum that we at the OU UK offer, but a new activity that we build alongside in new directions.
Anyway, the seminar gave me a chance to sit alongside colleagues from major Oil and Gas companies to hear about what it was they wanted from universities. I was surprised by the almost total focus on the recruitment of the brightest and best of new graduates, and on coping with the difficulty in persuading new graduates that the Oil and Gas industries are attractive places to build a career. There was almost no focus from the industry representatives on the development of people in their existing workforce. My only contribution was to point out that if the competition for the brightest and best new graduates was already fierce this would only get worse because of the demographic down turn, in many developed countries at least, of this age cohort. This would mean development of the current workforce would become even more important than it was already, and that the emphasis on non-campus based forms of study that supported learning in and around the workplace rather just the campus would become all the more important. This took me, as readers will have already guessed, to the huge contribution that distance and e learning is able to make, especially for companies that were, as so many are in the Oil and Gas sectors, global in their operation. The contribution seemed to be well received, and to my surprise was regarded as representing new insight that would have to be engaged with at a future event. The contribution that distance and e-learning can make to learning and development for continuing professional development is of course central to national and policies across Europe and more widely, and of course to the European Commission. I would be interested to hear from colleagues about your experiences in this field, and how this broader agenda of what we call employer engagement in the UK is being addressed elsewhere.
I was interested to discover that as well as being an important base for managing the Oil and Gas industries of the North Sea, Aberdeen also represents a very important base for professional services for the industries on an international basis. I was very impressed by OPITO, who managed their intermediary role with great skill and hope to go back.
I can also tell readers that I had what may well have been the best steak in my life: Aberdeen Angus is of course very celebrated beef, at least here. The rain poured down for most of my time in Aberdeen, and when I commented on this to the taxi driver on leaving, he just remarked laconically that it was ‘good Scottish weather’. On the next stage of the journey home I sat in a train that may have been the most crowded train ever, as what seemed like the entire student population of the University of Dundee made the journey to Edinburgh on a Friday evening. A rather bumpy ride back to London on the commuter plane completed what had been a very stimulating trip.