Midlands universities launch £5m technicians programme

Midlands Innovation is supporting the TALENT programme, which is funded by eight universities, regional businesses and Research England

Eight Midlands universities will lead a £5m programme to support technicians in higher education.

Announcing the multi-million-pound TALENT programme, the chair of Midlands Innovation (MI) – the research partnership established by Aston, Birmingham, Cranfield, Keele, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and Warwick universities – said its members would be “collaborating to create new development opportunities for our technical staff and trialling interventions to address issues such as equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), and representation of technicians”.

Programme bosses claim it to be the largest ever investment in university technicians.

The four-year programme is supported by a £3m grant from the Research England Development Fund. The remainder of the funding will come from the eight MI university members, as well as key partners including the Science Council, Technician Commitment, Wellcome Trust, British Geological Survey, Rolls Royce, Unilever and Midlands Engine.

TALENT will use the funding to:

  • Investigate what technical skills are needed to support future research in the UK
  • Pilot programmes to improve career opportunities and make the profession more attractive to potential applicants
  • Support the creation of new placement schemes
  • Establish a technician-led training fund that will pay for staff development and address skills gaps

Read more: Technicians: Report highlights diversity challenges in workforce

Growing shortages in university technicians

This January, the Wellcome Trust published a report which claimed nearly a third of researchers were considering leaving the sector in the next three years.

Research England’s director of research, Steven Hill, said a growing shortage of university technicians meant programmes like TALENT were vital.

“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,” he said.

The eight MI universities collectively employ more than 2,000 technicians, which equates to around 10% of the number working in England.

MI has in recent years launched the UK Higher Education Technicians Summit, a national conference for technical staff working in higher education and research; the Papin Prizes, a series of awards to publicly recognise technical excellence in academia; and the pilot for a collaborative placement programme to enable career development opportunities for technical staff.

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.”

University technician EDI challenges

Professor Alec Cameron, chair of the MI Board and vice-chancellor of Aston University, said the TALENT programme is an “example of how universities can collaborate to innovate in their operation”.

He added: “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.”

The programme will be led by Nottingham University’s director of technical skills and strategy, Kelly Vere, who 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 an 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”.

Last November, the University of Nottingham published a report that highlighted challenges for technicians in the workplace.

According to the report – Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI): A Technician Lens – the majority of technicians in managerial positions are male, even in subject disciplines where the majority of technicians are female.

Only one in 10 technicians working in the fields of physics and engineering were female, the report also found.

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