Skills and European interdisciplinary curriculum design – energy-sector lessons from the UNI-SET project

Lidia Borrell-Damian
European University Association

Lennart Stoy
European University Association

Borana Taraj
European University Association

The persistent and urgent need to curb Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions in Europe and worldwide to a sustainable level is demanding a systemic transformation of the energy and adjacent sectors [1]. This change of technology, companies and markets allegedly results in a gap of technical, interdisciplinary, entrepreneurial and other skills of university graduates seeking employment in the energy sector [2].

The UNI-SET project (2014-2017), a 3-year FP7 action coordinated by EUA, sought to collect evidence about the skills gap at EU level and to propose suggestions for interdisciplinary curriculum design in the energy sector [3].

By means of a mixed-method approach (structured surveys and peer-to-peer discussions) to collect evidence, the project partners carried out a survey of approximately 600 master’s programmes in energy to assess the proliferation of interdisciplinary aspects [4]. This was accompanied by a survey of 182 energy-sector employers (organisations or individual business units). In additional, the findings were discussed in six workshops with employers and in six ‘Energy Clustering Events’.

Findings and lessons learned:
The results of the employers’ survey and workshops organised in 2015 and 2016 highlighted that core technical skills, interdisciplinary profiles, internship experience and student mobility were highly valued by employers. Skills such as the ability to work in teams and entrepreneurial thinking were frequently mentioned as well.
The survey for universities showed that around 30% of the Master Programmes were involved industry partners contributing directly to the educational content, and above 44% involved placements in industry. However, many master’s programmes were rather siloed regarding interdisciplinary education and training: 70% of the 579 master’s programmes were composed purely Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. 18% combined STEM and Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH), usually business and management. This was roughly equivalent to 32 600 students in total [4].

Towards a framework for interdisciplinary curriculum design:
Based on the more refined understanding of skills supply and employers’ expectations, the UNI-SET project developed a conceptual framework to upgrade existing energy education (and possibly other education programmes) [5]. This framework was the outcome of a collective effort of approximately 100 experts across different higher education institutions in Europe.

The proposed framework covered 24 specific topics for master’s programmes in three general areas of energy:(Energy Efficiency, Smart Grids and Energy Systems, and Renewables Integration), addressing 4 types of skills: technical, economic, social and political.

The framework is flexible, expandable and can be used in other energy-related fields (e.g. energy storage, e-mobility) and related areas needing interdisciplinary approaches (e.g. climate change, health). It could also be used in other grand challenge research areas aligned with one or more of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Impact at European level:
Results from the UNI-SET project fed the discussions at the European level about the Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan [6]. Relevant findings to improve the exchange of technological, economic, behavioural and social knowledge; training and capacity building for the following areas were included in three areas:
• Smart cities and communities [7]
• Energy efficiency in industry [8]
• Batteries for storage and electro-mobility [9]

Future collaboration potential for the energy sector and beyond:
The Action Agenda primarily addresses universities that are responsible for developing, establishing, managing, operating, and delivering energy-related education and training programmes at the master and doctoral level. However, it can be used by all parties interested in energy education, including those with political and policy perspectives. Putting all facts and discussions together led us to conclude that emerging skills needs follow the rapid pace of change in the European energy system. Therefore, action needs to be taken immediately, and there is a lot of potential for more collaboration between universities and companies to integrate these new skills needs into their curricula and programmes.