A group shot of all in attendance at the MI Talent launch event

Photo by Alex Wilkinson Media

Universities lead project to deliver largest ever investment into HE technicians

A new project led by a consortium of eight Midlands-based universities and industry partners – including Loughborough University – is to shine a light on the expertise of their technical community by delivering a package of measures to support their career advancement and development.

Midlands Innovation’s £4.99 million TALENT programme is the largest ever investment into technicians in higher education, whose specialist skills often go unrecognised despite the crucial role they play in the success of universities and the growth of the UK economy.

As a highly skilled workforce, around 30,000 technicians currently underpin research, teaching, knowledge transfer and innovation at UK universities and many are researchers and educators in their own right, teaching and training students and researchers at every level.

The programme launch took place on 27 February at the University of Nottingham, attended by Loughborough University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Steve Rothberg, who described TALENT as “a transformational opportunity for technical staff at Loughborough.”

He was joined by Loughborough colleagues Julie Turner, Strategic Scientific Development Officer, Craig Brown, Senior Technical Officer, Eleanor Braithwaite, Technical Officer in Biochemistry, and Dr Victoria Haines, Reader in User Centred Design, who participated in a roundtable discussion on encouraging greater female representation in science, research and academic entrepreneurship.

Announcing the programme, 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.”

The four-year project is being led by Kelly Vere, Director of Technical Skills and Strategy at The University of Nottingham. She 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 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.”

Professor Alec Cameron, Chair of the Midlands Innovation Board, Vice-Chancellor Aston University said: “I am delighted that Midlands Innovation has been awarded this investment. TALENT will shine a light on the important role that technicians play in our universities and will enable us to deliver a step change in the career development opportunities we provide to this vital workforce.

“In addition, TALENT is an excellent example of how universities can collaborate to innovate in their operation. Collectively we have over 2100 technicians working in our eight universities. 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.”

TALENT is underpinned by a grant of more than £3 million from the Research England Development Fund. The rest of the funding will be provided by the consortium university members as well as key partners including the Science Council, Technician Commitment, Wellcome Trust, British Geological Survey, Rolls Royce plc, Unilever and Midlands Engine.

It builds on considerable work already undertaken by Midlands Innovation to advance the technician agenda, including the signing of the Technician Commitment by all consortium institutions in 2017, the establishment of the UK Higher Education Technicians Summit; a national conference for technical staff working in higher education and research, and the Papin Prizes, a series of awards to publicly recognise technical excellence in academia, as well as piloting a collaborative placement programme to enable career development opportunities for our technical staff.

Research England’s Director of Research, Steven Hill, said: “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.”

TALENT will lead and promote change to enhance the status and development opportunities of technicians through three main themes: Technical Talent of the Future, Technicians as Partners and Technical training and Empowerment.