Tech City UK Blog

As mentioned in a previous post, we recently had the honour of receiving a visit from Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission. Ms Kroes had a very interesting discussion with the CEO of Tech City UK, Gerard Grech. The Commissioner kindly asked Gerard and Baroness Joanna Shields, Tech City UK Chair, to contribute opinion pieces for “Digital Minds for a New Europe”. Joanna’s piece focused on the need to think differently about education and digital in the 21st century.

Creating a Marriage between industry and education

The UK and Europe have a long history of innovation and design leadership. From the groundbreaking coding of Ada Lovelace, to the development of the World Wide Web and the sleek design of the Apple watch, European leadership in technological advancement continues apace. As the legacy of innovation progresses, we are faced with new challenges and opportunities for change. From finance to advertising and healthcare, digital continues to disrupt established industries and professions.

Education needs to undergo a similar disruption. It is time to revolutionise traditional education models to meet the demands of the digital economy and to democratise access to digital skills. The strongest way to achieve this goal is through a renewed partnership between education institutions and digital businesses.

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As Adviser to the UK Prime Minister on the Digital Economy, I witness economic development and success stories on a daily basis. But these are not enough: there needs to be a cultural shift in thinking. Ultimately, it is in the interest of all EU member states.

A European Commission report published in December 2012 identified that Internet traffic is doubling every 2–3 years; and mobile Internet traffic doubling every year. By 2015 there will be 25 billion wirelessly connected devices globally, increasing to 50 billion by 2020. Mobile data traffic is expected to increase 12-fold between 2012 and 2018, and data traffic on smartphones to increase 14 times by 2018. There are more than 4 million ICT workers across many sectors of the digital economy in Europe and their number is growing by 3 per cent annually.

As digital becomes part of the core DNA of the European economic model, we are left with pressing questions.

How can we meet the appetite of students and entrepreneurs to develop the skills they need to become risk takers like Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, who took his idea from the page to the computer a quarter of a century ago? How can we revolutionise the guiding principles through which we educate to ensure digital skills, and the entrepreneurial spirit they ignite, become a central focus across the EU?

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A recent Nectar survey found that 80% of young people in Britain would like to start their own business in the next five years. Digital businesses around the UK are calling out for talent: 745,000 additional workers with digital skills will be required in Britain alone to grow the economy over the next 3-4 years.

But this data highlights a fundamental problem: the demand for digital skills is greater than the rate of supply.

Training and skills are the lifeblood of any agile economy. We can only be as economically innovative and effective as the skillsets of our populations allow. As the rate of digital innovation heightens, with new platforms, networks and products created, it is the responsibility of policymakers and educators to create programmes to tackle the digital skills issue. The future of the smart European digital economy is not five, ten, or fifteen years away – it is right now. Therefore, the message must be: “adapt, or get left behind”.

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So far, the issue of digital skills has been addressed largely by a number of industry-led coding initiatives and through computer science becoming part of education curricula. This is represents an innovative and practical way of thinking, built on the recognition that technical development skills must begin early in the education cycle to equip students with the necessary competencies for them to build successful careers.

But building a digital economy is not just about coding and computer science. As digital disrupts traditional industries, educators must be aware of this development and think creatively about how to harness it to effect positive change.

One way we do this is by building sustainable partnerships between the digital business community and higher education, to help them understand the new disciplines emerging in the sphere of digital; and to identify the learning gaps that still exist.

Businesses can influence how universities and colleges shape their curriculum in a way that is both practical and effective, catering to the needs and wants of the digitally enabled student who needs to adapt to a rapidly evolving technological workplace.

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Too many students are forced to take courses overseas, or to pay for expensive private alternatives when they should be afforded the opportunity to be trained in user experience, digital analytics or product management as part of their formal education. There should be space in the system to build dedicated departments for digital education, forming partnerships with the business community to create a case for the introduction of digital thinking and disruption across all academic faculties – from Law and Medicine, to Humanities and the Arts.

At Tech City UK, we, alongside our partners in the UK Government, are launching Digital Business Academy – a unique programme dedicated to meeting this challenge head on. It is the first time that a government-funded MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) has been developed with the specific aim of up-skilling the nation and developing the necessary business skills to succeed in the digital industries.

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The programme brings together the UK’s world-class educational institutions University College London and Cambridge University and grassroots digital skills provider Founder Centric in a series of 8 courses – all online and accessible to anyone in the UK for free. This connection between grassroots business needs and higher education expertise is an important step. We want the UK population, irrespective of age, economic status, or background, to be able to access the vital training and skills they need to excel in the digital workplace.

Our shared EU vision must be to democratise digital skills and to equip all citizens with the training needed to meet the demands of the digital age. In order to do this we need a revolutionary shift in thinking around how we approach the issue of education in the 21st century.

It is now time to create a marriage between industry and educators, to deliver the skills needed for Europe’s future generations of business builders.