Lucy at the bridgehead

Lucy at the bridgehead

There’s a growing pool of talent available to serve businesses ready to upskill in the better trading conditions now emerging. And there’s financial support also for some of the firms prepared to seize the opportunity. Lucy Winskell explains the opportunities to Brian Nicholls

As a new crop of students fills North East universities, the bright prospect for businesses upskilling in our region is that up to four out of five emergent graduates are now staying on in the region. That’s almost double the average of stay-puts in London and the South East.

Paul Wilson, chief executive of the region’s upmarket Nigel Wright recruitment consultancy, says that with more North East firms raising their investment in internship, placement and graduate programmes now, remaining here increasingly tempts graduates.

Fortuitously, Lucy Winskell, pro-vice chancellor for business, engagement and partnerships at Northumbria University - and recently appointed OBE for her services to higher education and the regional economy - also now chairs the North East Chamber of Commerce. Thus: a bridgehead between business and academia.

Paul, whose firm has flourished on local talent and sourcing best candidates in the region for 26 years now, says: “We know working with North East graduates can immensely benefit local companies and, implicitly, the region’s economy. Our universities are producing high calibre graduates with experience and skills to succeed in many industries.”

This year Teesside, Newcastle and Northumbria each received a Queen’s Anniversary Prize – awarded to few institutions. It’s higher education’s principle accolade for excellence. The North East trio won it for digital, for research into sustainable rural economies, and for outstanding community work respectively.

Lucy, seeing business-academia possibilities from both sides, says universities are important to creating new knowledge and skills, and offer technological support that businesses may not realise.

With 10,000 students in menial jobs nationally and perhaps 8% of all graduates jobless, she realises the swell of talent not yet matched by job vacancies in the North East. The five varsities – the above three plus Durham and Sunderland – have met to consider this. “So one of our roles is to help businesses grow and absorb our graduates,” she says. “We also lay emphasis on encouraging students to start businesses and employ other graduates.”

Growing interest firms have towards graduate involvement is the game changer, in her view. “If students can get good work placements, internships and good work experience during studies, their class of degree improves through motivation. They’re also exposed to a potential employer, and a number are kept on.

“Even if not, they’ve experience on the CV and understand better employers’ needs. We’re also engaging with alumni who, having moved on, may be able to help or build on business relationships. At Northumbria, our alumni are really receptive. Many feel strongly about wanting to put something back.”

To give an idea of capabilities, building surveying students Scott Rexworthy, Will Rycroft and Oliver Barker have had placements in high places. Rexworthy and Rycroft worked on the Houses of Parliament, Barker on Buckingham Palace. Marketing management student Gemma Mills worked at Walt Disney World in Florida and Barbour, the Tyneside garment manufacturer. Industrial design student Katy Green worked with global electronics manufacturer Philips in Amsterdam, and Cosatto Baby Products, which is manufacturing one of her pushchair designs to feature in 150 Mothercare stores.

Around 200 students a year work on live legal cases in Student Law Office. Supervised by qualified solicitors, they’ve represented more than 1,000 clients, securing more than £1m in compensation since 2008. Last year Northumbria students gave 30,000 hours to voluntary work, benefiting 2,500 people in the region. They helped raise £50,000 for charity through their Rag Week.

BIM Academy, a collaboration of university and Ryder Architecture, has taken expertise to Hong Kong and Australia. Northumbria’s an interesting case study, having this year climbed six places in the Complete University Guide 2015, prompting claims to be the region’s most improved university.

Three of its subjects rank in the top five, plus three in the top 10 among UK universities. It’s the only UK university in the top 10 for all building, architecture, and property management subjects. Its library facilities are rated third alongside Cambridge’s.

Businesses might note that its business school is now among the elite of global business schools, its programmes having earned five-year accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. Only 700 business schools (less than 5% of business programmes worldwide are accredited thus).

Northumbria’s eighth among English universities in percentage of graduates placed in professional jobs. Its students and graduates have launched more than 100 companies there over five years, many trading nationally and abroad. Having survived the critical first three years, they employ almost 800 people. Total turnover is £54m-plus, putting Northumbria among the UK’s top four universities for graduate start-ups.

That £54m is only £3m behind the third placed University of Central Lancashire. What chance,  pushing into third place? “We certainly aim to. There’s all to play for,” Lucy declares. “I’ve an ambition to see us first in the country. I’m quietly confident - I hope those words don’t come back to haunt me,” she adds, laughing. “But there’s such ambition among everyone here. And strong businesses are emerging from all the region’s universities.”

Might traditional purity of academic research suffer? “For many students, focus is employability – whether, after accumulating three or four years’ debt, they’ll get a job,” she says. “Some will still come to study for the love of a subject and some for the qualification.”

What can she achieve with one foot in academia, the other in business? “The advantage to universities is, I sit round a table with business leaders almost daily. I listen and respond to their issues - consider how they can be helped. It’s almost being at the sharp end of business needs. They can get help, and there’s matching going on. University managements now run large international businesses. We hope we can share some of our skills.”

Many businesses, however, may hesitate to approach as vast a monolith as a modern university. She admits: “What struck me coming here was how hard it was to skate your way round the answer to a problem. In my first week I had calls from a law firm. Could we provide a student to help on a website project? Whether to go to the law school, marketing, or where?  I found it difficult myself to navigate – and I was on the inside.”

So she devised Open for Business, an explanatory pamphlet and programme free of university jargon from a business perspective. “Open for Business is on our newly relaunched website, but I say, ‘if you don’t know who to speak to, ring me and I’ll find out.’”

Winskill Extra 01What of businesses that harbour lingering suspicions of an ivory tower? “Some may have had a bad experience in the past,” she agrees. More firms are acknowledging benefits of academic partnering. Last year Northumbria won Knowledge Transfer Partnership of the Year award for its placement rate of post-graduate students within firms to help their competitiveness, productivity and performance. In this state supported scheme, they assist for a period in developing specific products or ideas, with academic staff behind them.  
Last year, firms taking part almost doubled in number. Outstandingly successful was Renown Engineering at Cramlington. Its sales went from £11m to £15m.

This surely counters a lingering belief that smaller businesses cannot justify the cost of such an involvement. Indeed, European funding of £1.1m will now help more than 50 SMEs through a Graduate into Business scheme. Lucy explains: “We pay half salary of internships if the SME can match it.

“Innovation Vouchers, too, carry funding to help SMEs work with us on particular product or process development. There’s more help than some might think from European funding coming into the region.

“Firms need a germ of an idea, and the voucher carries conditions. But it will be user friendly, and while sums aren’t large, they’re a foot in the door to help. This is mainly aimed at small research projects and consultancy or technical services. Businesses can apply for grant support of up to £6,000.”

The university also helps create new businesses as a partner with Newcastle Business and Intellectual Property Centre, the British Library, Newcastle City Council and Newcastle Science City. With ERDF funding again, inventors, entrepreneurs and small businesses are helped to develop. Since 2011, the centre has supported 1,300 individuals, helped create 66 businesses and 204 more jobs in the region.

Then Northern Design Centre (NDC), the innovation hub at Gateshead, builds on the university’s international reputation in design education, research and industry practice. Innovation benefiting firms of any size is encouraged in association with the like of Philips, Unilever, Mars and Akzo Nobel.

North East universities have been rising in rankings based on nine criteria set by The Complete University Guide website. Newcastle, in the top 20 for the first time, was additionally in the top 10 for 16 of its 38 subjects. It ranked 18th in last year’s Sunday Times guide. In separate tables covering 67 subjects, Durham University was in the top 10 for all 31 of the subjects it offers, topping the table in nine.

As for ambiance, Newcastle for the fourth time in five years has been voted best UK city for students. Northumbria University won the City Life prize at WhatUni Student Choice Awards for its location. Back on the serious side Sir Roderick Floud, former president of Universities UK, believes Britain has too many universities, giving a “messy, muddled” higher education system. What would Lucy say to his contention the total should be halved? She adds: “Time will be the test. Students will make informed choices, and universities will have to make informed choices as to which markets they wish to be in, and the offer to the student.”

How gown uplifts town

Universities benefit society beyond business. Witness Gateshead…

Northumbria’s been crucial to that town centre’s transformation brought through the region’s biggest recent regeneration project. The £150m Trinity Square development, led by Tesco’s regeneration arm Spenhill and Gateshead Council, includes accommodation for almost 1,000 students. Council leader Mick Henry enthuses: “Students bring creativity and inspiration.”

They also patronise shops, eating spots and leisure outlets. The university has increased help for businesses and encouraged graduate start-ups there. Social impetus is considerable. Student volunteers work with carers and vulnerable people. Vitally too Northumbria’s working with schools there, tempting pupils to consider higher education.

Lucy explains: “We’ve found schools with particular socio-economic backgrounds, and rates at which young people have applied to us have improved dramatically, just by exposing them at a lower age, and their families, to what university life could be about.” The Higher Education Funding Council has awarded Northumbria £1.2m towards a Think Physics project, whereby young people, particularly girls from under-represented groups, consider STEM subjects – science, technology engineering and mathematics. This addresses the nation’s shortage of STEM skills. Only 6% of the UK’s engineering workforce is female, yet recruits of both sexes to the industry must double if demand is to be met.

Says Lucy: “It’s no good sparking interest in science for Jenny, aged seven, if she goes home and mum and dad say ‘ah, but that’s not for girls.’” So Think Physics also involves families, teachers, and the broader community. It’s supported by the Centre for Life, Kielder Observatory, and the North Tyneside Learning Trust.

Ongoing government funding cuts, fees threatening UK student numbers, and possible competition from apprenticeships mean finances will be handled differently, Lucy says. Competition to attract foreign students is a challenge also being met.

But, she points out: “We have products to sell. We’re strong, for example, at our business school in workforce development, and in management training which businesses wish to pay for, and in our ability around continuing professional development.”

Northumbria’s now opening a London campus offering professional industry based programmes at postgraduate and undergraduate levels.

It has around 5,980 students studying Northumbria-validated or franchised programmes on campuses, or through distance learning, from centres including Hong Kong, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore and South Korea. And with more Indonesian students than any other UK university, it has formed a partnership to create a school of design in Jakarta.