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Realising Wales’ Digital Future

Professor Colin Riordan outlines why digital upskilling and investing in universities should be a political priority.

Originally published on the IWA website

The workplace as we know it is undergoing seismic changes.

Digitalisation and automation are advancing at pace and this will bring new social and economic tests and opportunities as the skills required by employers continue to evolve.

Ensuring Wales makes the most of the opportunities presented will, in large part, depend on our ability to further upskill our population and the success with which we deliver research and innovation in this area.

And Wales’ universities have a vital role to play.

Upskilling the future workforce

We are already seeing a growing call for higher level skills in Wales, and this comes at a time when automation risks shrinking the occupation sectors upon which Wales depends.

This, combined with Wales’ ageing demographic, means that providing opportunities to reskill or upskill is increasingly important.

The Centre for Cities found that an estimated 112,000 jobs in Swansea, Cardiff and Newport will be at risk of automation by 2038 and work by Nesta estimated that a third of the Welsh workforce is employed in the least productive, lowest paid and most generic industries that are often considered at highest risk of automation.

A growing body of evidence, including work by PwC, the Centre for Cities and McKinsey, suggests that higher level skills will be both less exposed to the risks of automation and increasingly important in ensuring that Wales can capitalise on the opportunities afforded by technological change.

Universities have developed new ways of delivering higher-level skills to people of all ages and backgrounds.

The sector has created opportunities for people to access learning at different points in their life and in different ways, and we have seen record-breaking growth in part-time and postgraduate study.

It is crucial that we continue this momentum. In recognition of the substantive need for lifelong learning, we are asking the next Welsh Government to commit to an ambitious Universities for Skills programme which supports innovation, collaboration and further develops systems of flexible learning.

Degree apprenticeships will also become increasingly important in Wales’ response to the challenges of automation.

The current programme offers a work-based route to degrees in digital, advanced manufacturing and engineering – skills which will be in increasingly high demand in the years to come.

This kind of higher level, work-based skills development will be critical as we prepare for a digital future.

In recognition of this, we are calling for the next Welsh Government to expand the degree apprenticeship programme to cover a wider range of subjects and include master’s level.

Capitalising on research strengths

Alongside providing Wales’ population with the skills needed to thrive in the future workplace, investment in research and innovation will be key to shaping the future of the Welsh economy.

Welsh universities are a leading academic destination for world class research. In the Research Excellence Framework 2014, Welsh universities were found to have the highest percentage of world-leading research in terms of its impact of any part of the UK.

In particular, the research and innovation activity carried out by Welsh universities provides Wales with significant strengths in digital innovation, including cyber security, quantum technologies, data science, smart energy, and creative industries.

Our universities work with businesses of all sizes to ensure they can benefit from Wales’ strong research and innovation sector, using the knowledge gained from research activity to develop marketable products or improved services.

From hosting high profile technology hubs, to collaborating with businesses and supporting graduate entrepreneurs, university research and innovation creates and supports the growth of new sectors of the economy, creating high quality jobs at all levels.

As the workplace continues to evolve, delivering research and innovation activity that generates new businesses, new jobs and new industries will become ever more crucial.

Wales’ universities can be at the forefront of this workplace revolution.

However, they will need the support of the next Welsh Government through the implementation of the recommendations of the Reid Review.

A bold approach

There are undoubtedly benefits to be gained from technological advancements in the workplace – not least the potential for increased productivity and the opportunity for better kinds of work for people in Wales.

Building a system that is adaptive and responsive to change will be key to enabling the Welsh workforce to realise these opportunities. This will require:

  • sufficient investment in research and innovation to ensure that the Welsh economy can continue to grow and provide individuals with the benefits of growth.
  • an education and training system that enables individuals to access higher level skills throughout their life.

The next Welsh Government must take a bold approach and seize the opportunities offered by new technology to build on Wales’ ambition and build a successful and prosperous society that delivers for all.

Wales’ universities will work closely with the next Senedd and Welsh Government to support this ambition.

By continuing to innovate and deliver the right skills where they’re needed most, our universities can be at the heart of a national drive to realise Wales’ digital future.