27 Apr 2010

Universities point the way to a collaborative solution to skills shortages in the biopharma industry

Britain’s top R&D sector, the biopharma industry, is facing a significant skills shortage that only more concerted co-operation between universities, the industry and Government can address, a new report produced by the University of Reading, has found.

Over the past five years, the pharmaceutical and related sectors have faced a growing skills gap and shortage of suitably trained graduates, despite existing co-operation between universities and the industrial sector. The prevailing financial and institutional constraints in both HE and the biopharma industry have exacerbated the gap between what universities are providing and what the industry wants in its employees.

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 universities 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.

Professor Gavin Brooks, Academic Lead for the Biopharma project at the University of Reading commented that; “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. The industry needs to make a consistent commitment to supporting universities in developing key work-related skills in students, just as the law or accountancy sectors do, particularly through work placements.”

Although new courses have been developed in higher education, for example in chemistry and biosciences, 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.

Graduate recruits also face new and greater demands in the light of the many changes that the industry has gone through. The sector needs to acknowledge these changes and also to recognise that the universities share many of its problems. 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.

Professor Christine Williams, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Enterprise at the University of Reading, said: “The pharmaceutical industry is of critical importance to the UK, and in particular the south east of England, where over 1000 health technology businesses are located. This report establishes a template for urgent Government, universities and industry collaboration. 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.”

David Fox, Director, External Chemistry Partnerships, Pfizer Global R&D, said: “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.”

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. The Final Report from the project is being distributed to Government, industrial, professional and campaigning bodies.

In the UK, the biopharma industry generates nearly £4 billion a year, employs more than 130,000 people and accounts for 25% of all business investment in Research and Development.

For more information about the Project and the Report, please contact Professor Gavin Brooks, University of Reading (; 0118 378 6363).

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