Universities point the way to overcoming biopharma skills shortages

Report highlights an increasingly urgent problem in skills and recruitment

The UK biopharma industry is facing a significant skills shortage that only more concerted co-operation between universities, the industry and the government can address, a new report produced by the University of Reading has found.

The new report from the South East Universities Biopharma Skills Consortium Project highlights an increasingly urgent problem in skills and recruitment and identifies the barriers and possible solutions to addressing the issue within higher education, industry and at a Government level.

The six universities¹ involved in the report have pinpointed areas in which they themselves can work better together to respond to the requirements of the industry: sharing resources, expertise and risk across a higher education consortium; increasing flexibility on the part of universities to work with the dynamic and changeable biopharma industry; involving industry in curriculum design and delivery; development of masters-level and new doctorate-level programme provision; and countering the effects of modularisation of courses, which arguably hinders the synthesis and transfer of the knowledge and skills needed for research-based work.

However, the report is equally clear in assigning vital roles to both the pharmaceutical sector and Government to respond to the challenges and it outlines shortcomings in these areas that accentuate the difficulties facing the industry.

‘The biopharma industry is not a stable market for any type or level of higher education, which makes it hard for universities to plan. Specialist knowledge in high demand by the industry one year may be expendable the next,’ said Professor Gavin Brooks, Academic Lead for the Biopharma project at the University of Reading. ‘The industry needs to make a consistent commitment to supporting universities in developing key work-related skills in students, particularly through work placements.’

Although new courses have been developed in higher education, routes into the industry remain poorly marked, graduate recruitment schemes are scarce and there appears to be no industry standard as to entry level qualifications. Lack of skills and knowledge in school leavers means they are often poorly equipped to study for an undergraduate degree in the field. Mathematical skills are a particular problem.

‘This report establishes a template for urgent government, universities and industry collaboration,’ said Professor Christine Williams, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Enterprise at the University of Reading. ‘Universities will provide courses in disciplines where there is both student demand and adequate funding streams to support high quality training, including appropriate academic expertise. However, without industry co-operation and significant development and operational funding from industrial and public sources, the universities are severely constrained in their ability to meet the biopharma industry’s needs.’

This view is endorsed by David Fox, director, External Chemistry Partnerships, Pfizer Global R&D. ‘The need for industry and academia to collaborate has never been greater, if UK-based pharma research is to maintain its global competitiveness. This report provides a timely and valuable framework to inform ongoing discussions on the key themes of future skills need, training and how to build more effective relationships,’ he added.

1 The project was led by the University of Reading and involved the universities of Brighton, Kent, Southampton and Surrey and the Open University, along with fdf (Foundation Degree Forward) and was sponsored by the Regional Development Agency, SEEDA.