Listen... do you want to know a secret?

Listen... do you want to know a secret?

Big skills and career opportunities are promised as Shirley Atkinson drives around £14m worth of investment towards bringing business and academia closer. Brian Nicholls discusses it with her over lunch.

To have the smiling Shirley Atkinson accept your lunch invitation and impart a medley of ‘secrets’ and elaborations is privilege indeed, one feels, given the extraordinary workload she bears.

Can there be anyone in North East academia presently with more specific projects demanding her time and expertise – much of them to do with pumping more power into the elbow of North East business enterprise?

The successful £8m creation of an Enterprise and Innovation Hub and FabLab are two of them. Then there’s the commitment to introduce a groundbreaking university technical college, dedicated to training model recruits for engineering and other industry.

Thirdly, there’s a £6m investment to build on the university’s international reputation for pharmacy and pharmaceuticals, enhancing work also in new areas such as proteomics (study of proteins in organisms) and metabolomics (studies in metabolism).

At the same time she carries out her day job, shall we say, as interim vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Sunderland’s stewardship of futures for 19,800 students.

That involves responsibility for the executive management and oversight of the university, delivery of its corporate and academic plans, its financial sustainability, and the quality and success of its programmes and graduates.

Elaborations concerning the Hub, the FabLab and the technical college, first in the North East, should be discussion priorities, we felt. It would have been understandable had Shirley responded in slow measure, given all the facts and figures that must swirl in her head.

On the contrary, an intensive and indefatigable networker, she speaks spontaneously and confidently as she leads a verbal tour of potential benefits for the region where business and education edge closer – an urgent need of the North East’s strategic future, given the combination here of excessively high youth unemployment and a skills shortage.

She can confirm already that the FabLab is opening early on a temporary site. And the Hub of which it is part will become the focal point for businesses wishing access to offerings of the university and its departments.

“We’re talking to a range of stakeholders so the Hub is a compelling offer for businesses to locate to,” she says. “And the FabLab is a great addition. We’re really excited about that.” In total, a new University of Sunderland gateway to the business community – aligned to a mission and purpose of the institution to be more entrepreneurial in its support of communities and businesses.

All became possible when the Government announced a £290m investment for skills and jobs, projects, housebuilding and transport links in the region, covering many of the projects submitted to government in the North East Strategic Economic Plan.

The Hub idea, she stresses, arose through Sunderland Business Group when the university was asking business people how it might further support them. It is now expected to support the region in stepping up the number of innovative business start-ups, creating more than 700 jobs.

Since 2002 the university, through hatchery and incubator spaces, has already helped hundreds of students and graduates eager to set up businesses. The new hub will expand this.

All should be up and running by December 2016, with support also acknowledged from the North-East Local Enterprise Partnership and Sunderland City Council. Meanwhile, the FabLab gets under way temporarily alongside its eventual site on the city centre campus.

The FabLab concept, a digital manufacturing laboratory, was conceived and developed initially by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. FabLabs have the latest technology and fullest support for experiments that may herald new products. “It’s a great addition that we hope will benefit the whole region,” she says.

The university is delighted also to have been working with Hitachi since its arrival in South West Durham. “We now have approval to open the first university technical college in the region – a joint venture between the university, Hitachi and Gestamp Tallent auto parts manufacturer.

Many more firms on the business park at Newton Aycliffe are interested. Part of the objective is to help create a supply chain whose employees have the right skills-set at different levels. We don’t just focus on undergraduate or postgraduate for business; we’re interested in the supply chain all the way through.

“We can help all learners to have an opportunity. So the university technical college will have three pathways – apprenticeships with Hitachi and other employers, a pathway for those wishing a BTec level qualification, and a pathway for those wishing higher education, and who will do very strong science based A levels.

“A university technical college,” she defines, “takes young people from 14 to 19 and differs in concept to any other kind of college development. It has different characteristics. The curriculum is vocationally focused, although we shall deliver all the curriculum stuff in science areas.

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“We also have a language going in to help manufacturing and industry. The language chosen is German. Once learners reach 16-18 our curriculum is aligned to employer needs.

The 16-18 students get the opportunity of embedded workplaces with employers.

“Theirs is a different curriculum day. They are there from nine until five, focused on the journey they are on. This, then, isn’t a college because entrants are coming in at 14. So it’s a school, but with a slightly different purpose and focus.”

Then out pops a university ‘secret’ – well, perhaps more a little known, fascinating fact about existing achievements that help us assess prospects for further success.  

Work already undertaken with Nissan includes the fact that out of 38 Sunderland graduates who worked on strategic projects with the motor manufacturer and its supply chain 36 were retained. An estimate of about £11m has resulted from savings and improvements brought by teamwork within the supply chain.  

Many Nissan technicians have gone through Foundation degrees, and 1,778 Nissan employees have trained at the digital factory. One project in the advanced manufacturing saved the company €2m. There was a £6m increase in revenues at four companies in the supply chain through digital engineering improvement.

A programme of leadership development has also involved 80 senior staff of Nissan working on mainland Europe and in the Middle East and Asia including India. “That’s compelling stuff – again, a bit under the radar,” Shirley agrees. “In the advanced manufacturing research centre we work with numerous firms to improve manufacturing processes.”

How satisfying is it for her, personally, to work on the like of the Hub, the FabLab and the university technical college? “It’s great. We’ve also just had funding agreed for phase two investment in the sciences complex. This is equally exciting since we’re well connected in the health and pharma world. The upgrade will refresh and connect into different ways
of learning and teaching.”

Is this diversifying the economy of Sunderland or capitalising on it? “You have to think about it kind of differently,” she explains.

“Sunderland has the status of being a social enterprise city. The city council is looking at ways to deliver its services, and has three social enterprise ventures.

“It’s capitalising more, I think, than re-inventing, acknowledging strengths and differences, and going forward. It’s especially interesting for us since we work heavily with the region’s employers as well as locally.”

Also little known outside the walls of learning, perhaps: the city’s famous pharmacy school dates back more than 100 years, though the university per se has only existed since 1992. The arts school and teacher education also predate the present status.

The four year study course in pharmacy is moving to five, and here’s another little known fact: the existence for about a year now of a point of care testing centre. Students can work in a simulated hospital ward, beds and all, with technology already in service. “They can use it all on each other too – a bit worrying,” Shirley says, impishly.

“Some health care providers are using it too. In a hospital only one person might use a particular item of equipment – maybe a nurse, a care worker or a consultant. But not everyone is aware of the whole range of the instruments and technologies available.

So they can come to a safe space, our point of care testing area, away from an actual hospital environment.

“We’ve a strategic partnership with Sunderland Foundation Trust, the hospitals foundation. So the health and wellbeing and the sciences work very closely with the Trust on shared agendas. That’s very compelling – not just for families in Sunderland area. It involves work also with South Tyneside around the health agenda.”

Elsewhere, future investment is planned to further develop the institute of automotive manufacturing and advanced practice (AMAP). A recent economic study of the university’s impact concluded it generates £560m GVA for the UK economy and supports 7,500 jobs in the region. All the portents, then, are that these figures will rise.