We’ve now had over a year of strikes by doctors, nurses and other staff campaigning for improved pay and working conditions. Over the past year in our schools, striking teachers have highlighted supply and retention challenges, with pay and workload cited as barriers to joining and staying within the profession.
Meanwhile, a number of councils across England are facing effective bankruptcy and having to implement cuts to front-line services, with huge pressure being put on support for vulnerable adults and children, and on housing services in particular.
'public services are in turmoil'
Our public services are in turmoil and we now face a disheartening vicious circle of continued under-funding, high workload, low public confidence and trust, and inevitable ongoing supply and retention challenges. Nowhere are the challenges more stark than within healthcare and education.
Universities are critical to training our nation’s public service professionals, and yet it is now a struggle to attract applications to study across these essential areas.
Nursing and education are particular areas of concern where a healthy pipeline of qualified, motivated and committed people into these professions is worryingly elusive. Prospective students are just not considering entering these professions because they see low status, poor pay and difficult working environments. Those who do complete extensive training and gain qualification are more than likely to exit their profession early.
If this continues, the nation faces a serious ongoing under supply of qualified staff across the totality of our health, education and other public sectors. This would be unthinkable for maintaining the continued quality of provision, let alone improving capacity across over-stretched services. Furthermore, we face the prospect of further exacerbating those inequalities that are embedded within the fabric of society, as those who can elect to access private alternatives.
Universities have a critical role to play in reclaiming our public services as attractive and suitably rewarded professions. However, successfully turning the tide demands intentional collaboration and partnership not only across higher education, further education, local and national government and commissioning bodies, but with business and industry.
'without sound infrastructure business expansion is limited, stifling economic recovery'
I suggest we need to see business and industry engage much more deeply and with a greater sense of corporate social responsibility to support the future public services workforce pipeline. This is because without a sound infrastructure to support health, education and other services, business expansion is potentially limited, stifling economic recovery and growth.
For example, where I am based in the South West there are significant large employers looking to expand their operations, but doing so will involve not only upskilling the regional workforce but also attracting certain skilled workers into the region. Such employees and their families will need to access our public services and currently additional pressure on those services is potentially a huge challenge.
Leveraging corporate responsibility through more formalised, mandatory funding channels, could unlock additional resource to inspire and incentivise our public sector professionals of the future. This should be regionally focused and allocated in partnership with universities and other training providers.
My early career was anchored in the teaching profession, as a classroom practitioner, a head teacher and then a university-based teacher educator. Seeing individuals thrive, develop and flourish through transformative learning experiences is incredibly rewarding. It was a key motivator for me thirty-five years ago and continues for me today as a university leader.
I know too from speaking to colleagues in healthcare and other public services that there is an underlying intrinsic motivation that draws people into such professions. What can be better than being in the business of making a difference to individuals, their families and broader communities?
Universities are committed to training our public servants and yet, we lack a joined-up approach to capture the interest and inspire those who are drawn to public service. Instead, we have negative media coverage and a difficult public narrative that is dangerously close to running away with itself and becoming self-fulfilling. UUK’s call for a major NHS recruitment campaign produced in partnership with universities, colleges, schools and the NHS is a positive step – but let’s see the same for teaching, social work, youth and community work, and other parts of the public sector that struggle to recruit.
Such campaigns should be part-funded by business and industry, demonstrating a commitment to investing in our nation’s public services – after all, it’s their workforce who are accessing such services. Employee access to good education, healthcare and more, for themselves and their families supports effective workplace engagement, wellbeing and productivity.
Unfortunately, we may succeed in inspiring young people to aspire to be nurses or more mature career changers to consider teaching, but training for a career within public services is still beyond the reach of many because of affordability.
We know that across the UK, more students than ever need to work part-time to fund living costs whilst at university. However, the intensity of study and training for professionally accredited qualifications at degree level means that working part-time to subsidise study is just not practical. If trainees do have to work part-time alongside their studies, then levels of engagement with learning and with important placement activity can be compromised.
'corporate social responsibility is no longer optional.'
Policy makers, politicians and providers must work together to further improve bursary funding and retention payments to incentivise quality applicants, support accessibility into the professions from under-represented groups and keep trained professionals in their chosen career through retention-linked incentives, and through better pay and conditions.
Again, I appeal to business and to a step change in approach which recognises that corporate social responsibility is no longer optional. I suggest a model not unlike the apprenticeship levy – for example, a model where a mandatory contribution from STEM-related industries is used to supplement financial incentives for STEM graduates to enter into teaching.
After all, those graduates are educating those who will potentially be employed within those companies that have contributed to funding the educator. Similarly with healthcare, because – as suggested above – business expansion is only possible if public services capacity is increased accordingly. Direct partnerships with universities and other training providers would ensure the levy payments are targeted where they are needed most, for example covering regional considerations or ensuring students from low-income families receive more help.
'it's becoming more difficult to attract talent to into public service'
I lead a university with a heritage steeped in public service, training teachers since 1840, currently expanding our healthcare provision and committed to a strategic future focus on education, research and knowledge exchange relevant for public, professional and community-facing services. We have seen thousands of students graduate over the years and move into fulfilling employment, making a difference and playing their part in transforming lives and communities.
Yet it is becoming more difficult to attract talent into public service and this is not a problem that universities can solve on their own.
This is a societal challenge that demands courageous and creative approaches to ensuring everyone takes responsibility and sees themselves as part of the solution – educators, commissioning bodies, politicians, policy makers, business and industry. Notwithstanding the strong altruistic traits of many private sector companies, I suggest the introduction of a mandatory corporate social responsibility levy, releasing targeted funding channelled directly in partnership with universities and other training providers to inspire and incentivise our future public services workforce pipeline.
Professor Claire Taylor
Vice-Chancellor & Chief Executive
Plymouth Marjon University