Dec 07 2021

Interview with Georgina Harris, Dean of the Faculty of STEM

Having recently launched our new STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) faculty at Arden University, we took a chance to catch up with Professor Georgina Harris, the new Dean of the Faculty of STEM, who, alongside Professor Jonathan Lawrence, will be tasked with creating programmes which deliver the vocational skills required to help graduates enter STEM careers and address a crippling skills gap in the sector.

With this new faculty aiming to tackle the well-documented shortage of STEM graduates in the UK by improving access to STEM courses through blended and distance learning options, we asked Georgina what challenges the STEM industry faces currently, and why a degree from Arden University could be a great way to help boost the career of those looking to enter the sector. 

What's your role at Arden University?

As Dean of the Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) my job is to ensure that we are delivering quality courses for young people or people who want to upskill and grow in a STEM career. 

In the UK there is a national skills shortage across the whole of STEM, and we need to ensure that we've got adequately prepared individuals ready for work with the skillset to deliver what industry needs. 

Where has studying STEM taken you so far?

I have travelled the entire globe, worked with World-leading experts and been on television multiple times. I've taken part in a whole host of activities that I never expected to be able to do including flying a plane and driving 4x4s across the desert. I've walked parts of Earth that haven’t been inhabited by humans for thousands of years. I am continually surprised by the opportunities that present themselves.

My career has been spent with one foot in academia, and the other in industry. I like the speed and the cut and thrust of industry and I also like the detail and the passion you get from the academic environment. I especially like being able to tackle something that's cutting-edge (sometimes bleeding-edge) and develop it all the way through to its application in the real world.

Over my career I've worked at the Square Kilometre Array programme at the Jodrell Bank Observatory (part of the University of Manchester), Manchester Metropolitan University, The Open University, and the University of Salford. I've collaborated with a whole host of different industrial partners on projects involving all sorts of things: submarines, road vehicles, trains, telescopes, manufacturing technologies, renewable power generation technologies, a synchrotron light source to investigate cancer drugs…

If somebody had described any of this to me when I was graduating, I would have thought that they were dreaming…

What are the biggest challenges facing the STEM industry right now?

I think one of the biggest challenges facing the stem industry is a severe lack of suitably qualified individuals to fill the posts that are needed. We have an ageing population in the STEM businesses now, with lots of people about to retire, or not far away from retiring. We have a national shortfall of at least 20,000 graduates in engineering every year (i.e. even with all the graduates we currently have, we are still in need of a further 20,000 graduates to backfill for the people that will be retiring and the new roles that are being created in this field). This is a much higher number of graduates than we are annually producing in the whole of the UK and many experts believe that this estimate is still too low. 

The second thing is that there is a huge growth in industries trying to take advantage of new technologies. They have all experienced similar challenges (particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic) and the way of solving many of these problems will involve engineers and STEM specialists. Consequently, we are going to see a continued rise in the need for STEM specialists. 

The whole education sector in STEM is suffering from a real shortage of specialist knowledge and expertise; both in terms of a shortage of physics and mathematics teachers in schools. Parents have been home-schooling during the pandemic: a particularly challenging task if you do not feel confident in the subject yourself. The whole STEM education journey for young people is currently very challenging… and yet these skills are desperately needed. 

This highlights how vitally important it is for us to do the best job that we can: giving young people the skillset that they need for STEM careers going forward and giving those already in work the opportunity to upskill, retrain, or change disciplines. 

What are your objectives in your role?

I am passionate about engineering and the STEM agenda. These professions are filled with problem- solvers, driving innovation and development for societal benefit. Their importance and currency are highlighted regularly in announcements relating to the national skills agenda, no more so than now in the midst of a global pandemic. I am proud of the leadership role I play within this context, contributing both to education and to furthering knowledge through research in collaborative partnership with industry.

My life-long aim is to enable access to STEM education and training for everyone. We need a workforce in the UK that reflects our population in order that the new technologies that we design are suitable for everyone. Education is the biggest gift that you can give anyone; a gift that can never be taken from you. For the learner, an education offers opportunities for self-actualisation, good earning potential, control over their own career and real social mobility. These benefits are also felt by the generations that follow, not only in terms of financial stability but also enabling the learner to support and develop their children and grandchildren. If you give someone an education, you are potentially educating the future generations of an entire family. 

I think the second challenge for me is to make sure that people know just how fantastic a career in STEM is, so that they are inspired to take on the challenge. 

In some cases, STEM is portrayed as dry and less fun than other disciplines. I would say the opposite is true. Once a problem has been solved, you move onto the next challenge. So, with a career in STEM, you aren’t doing the same thing every day. The job is always evolving and you have to keep learning so that you have the skills to tackle the next challenge on the horizon.

Why is a qualification from Arden University well placed to counter the challenges and issues facing the sector?

I think the massive benefit you have from taking a qualification with Arden is that we offer both blended learning and distance learning. 

Blended learning means that you'll be doing some of your courses face-to-face with educators in our learning centres across the country. There’s also distance learning which is entirely online: allowing you to fit the qualification around you. So, if you're a carer or a parent, if you have a part-time job, or if you have other commitments, you are still able to study for qualifications with Arden University. 

I think the other major advantage is that a qualification with Arden University does not require you to relocate in order to be able to benefit from the qualifications that we're offering and face-to-face teaching. For many looking to gain their qualifications, that could be a massive financial benefit over traditional location-based universities. Learners do not have to pay residential fees and they have the possibility of retaining work at their current employer alongside their qualification.
 
Arden University is learner focused. For us, it is all about the learner experience and ensuring that our courses deliver for their intended career. We work hard to ensure a good match between the needs of the learner for their long-term career and the needs of industry. Unlike many other institutions, we can respond extremely quickly and it is this agility that attracted me to Arden University. 

Finally, what would you say are the most important attributes to have if you're looking to find success studying or working in STEM?

Determination. A qualification in STEM is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to apply yourself, and I cannot promise anybody that they will find a qualification in STEM easy. But once you have it, you have a huge advantage over the rest of the population, and there are some very well paid jobs out there. 

You also need to enjoy problem solving. It is a mindset that we are teaching, a way of approaching challenges of all types. If you're the sort of person that likes to solve puzzles or create new things then that is a massive advantage going into STEM. 

I would also say you need to be extremely creative. This is one that I think a lot of people miss when they're looking at a STEM career. To find a new vaccine, to find a new technology, to invent the new technology that's going to save the world requires a lot of creativity. It's not enough to be up to date with the technologies that already exist; you have to be able to invent the next!