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Elisabeth Pain , , , , ,

Transferable Skills Training in the U.K.: Progress and Uncertainties

According to a recent review of the provision of career development and transferable skills training to doctoral students and research staff in the United Kingdom, over the years the country has positioned itself as an international leader, thanks in part to the 2002 ‘SET for Success‘ report and the government money that followed. 
Written by Sir Gareth Roberts, ‘SET for Success‘ report recommended offering doctoral researchers about 2 weeks’ training each year in transferable skills. Another recommendation was for research organizations to help postdoctoral researchers develop and follow individual career plans. Since 2003, Research Councils UK (RCUK) have been distributing about 20 million per year to research institutions so they would offer such support.
What has been achieved with this ‘Roberts’ Money’ and what remains to be done has been the object of an independent review commissioned by RCUK and released last week. The review, led by Chair of the Inter-Company Academic Relations Group at the Confederation of British Industry Alison Hodge, found that U.K. research organizations have been putting in place a wide range of training programs in topics like data recording and analysis, paper and grant writing, communication skills, and CV writing and offering work placements in other organizations. 
“PhD students now have more encouragement for and flexibility over what and how they acquire their skills,” the review reads. While about one in ten research organizations reported offering extensive transferable skills training to doctoral researchers in 2004, that number jumped to about three quarters in 2009. “Career development and training in transferable skills, as part of the preparation of PhD students for the job market, is starting to emerge in research organisations as a recognised and essential part of many doctorates in the UK,” the review reads. The ‘Roberts’ money’ has also “helped PhD students to identify and express more clearly what their skills are and helped them to relate better to career opportunities outside academia.”
Provision of additional skills training to research staff is progressing more slowly, the panel found. More than one in three research organizations offered training in transferable skills in 2009 to their research staff, compared to fewer than one in ten in 2004. “While the quantity and quality of provision has increased significantly, this is still not yet a routine part of staff development practices.” The review notes that slower progress may be due in part to the higher priority research staff place on specializing in their field and publishing and to a lack of encouragement from Principle Investigators. Nonetheless, the review concludes, the “‘Roberts’ money’ has had a significant impact on raising the professionalism of research as a career; in particular it has encouraged research staff to take ownership for their personal continuing professional development.” 
The panel encouraged further progress in getting companies that employ scientists involved, as originally intended in the ‘SET for Success’ report. The panel expressed “serious concern” about “the relatively limited systematic interaction between research organisations and employers … either in setting or implementing skills development programmes.” Without widespread external engagement, “the focus of career development and skills training is unlikely to match the rapidly changing external environments and associated opportunities for the majority of researchers.” 
What the future holds is unclear. The ‘Roberts’ Money’ will run out in March, which means the end of specific, lump-sum funding for research organizations. But last March, RCUK announced that “The Research Councils anticipate that funding for researcher development will be increasingly embedded into their normal training and research grant mechanisms.” RCUK expects research organizations to include the costs of training for doctoral researchers into their teaching fees (and will raise the amount of its training grants accordingly). As for the training of research staff on grants, RCUK expects research organizations to incorporate such programs into their normal activities. RCUK plans to issue further guidance soon.
“The panel does, however, see risks that the internationally recognised high standing achieved in such matters in the UK may be lost with uncertainties over future funding mechanisms,” Hodge wrote in the review’s foreword. The panel urged RCUK “to ensure that specific funding and other initiatives continue to stimulate and reinforce the development of transferable skills and support for career development” while urging other funding bodies to get on board and research organizations to sustain their efforts. 
A lot is at stake. Institutions warned the panel that “the impending reductions in university funding may well result in less emphasis on career development and generic skills training. In some instances it was even stated that all such activities would completely cease if dedicated funding were to cease,” the review reads. And that, indeed, is what will probably happen.
You may read the full review and background documents on the RCUK Web site.