Professor Karen Stanton, Vice-Chancellor of York St John University
Professor Karen Stanton, Vice-Chancellor of York St John University, tells Mike Hughes how the core values of the institution combine with powerful business collaborations to make it an influential force in the regional economy.
As thousands of new students arrived at York St John University for the start of their first term, their minds were buzzing with the challenges of the next few days and weeks, new friends to meet, lecturers to listen to and subjects to explore and all in the centre of one of the country’s most beautiful cities.
In a university whose reputation and profile has grown so much in the last few years, Vice-Chancellor Professor Karen Stanton views the start of every new semester with the same excitement and positivity, but as well as her team’s focus on the newcomers they are also looking at the longer view.
As a crucial section of the skills pipeline that will underpin the economic future of the region, York St John starts planning for the working life of its students as as soon as they step through the door – and staying true to the principles it has held for more than 175 years the university refuses to wave them off at the door with only a degree in their hands – but offers so much more as well.
This is a place of individuals. From the staff to their students, it is a collection of personalities and ambitions that are each carefully nurtured to make sure the full potential is achieved and a fully-rounded person steps out of the door at Lord Mayor’s Walk capable of making a difference in their world and eager to get started.
“For us it is about being a university for life,” said Prof Stanton, who became VC in September 2015 and has overseen an extraordinary rise in regional and national impact. “It is a relationship we want to develop with each student, offering support to individuals that we know may go on to have three, four or five careers. We want them to start an association with the university now and then maintain it so that we can enable individuals to dip in and dip out of education throughout their lifetime and become their place of learning.
“It is a very different approach to some years ago and it positions us at the heart of the Government’s industrial strategy, where they talk very encouragingly about the importance of lifelong learning. Times have changed and we now need the opportunity to teach people flexibly and almost create a ‘learning account’ where they can gain credit either towards a qualification or to hold in the bank for CPD or shorter courses.”
That continual development of its alumni can take many forms, from post-graduate qualifications to challenging research posts or part-time courses. For Prof Stanton, a postgraduate return or continuation of study is an investment in reaching the career her students want – either by strengthening existing knowledge and skills, or taking on a whole new direction.
The challenge that this presents in tailoring education so precisely is substantial, but it is one that inspires the staff here to make York St John one of the UK’s best new universities.
Four of the main areas their plans focus on sum up the university perfectly: Quality, Community, Resilience and Growth. With the first three already perfected the fourth is well under way, on a foundation of the strongest links with business so that there is a clarity and understanding of what each needs to do for the region to perform to its full potential.
“It is partnership, partnership, partnership that is providing the answers throughout Yorkshire, and the same attitude from education and business will bring success,” said the VC. “It is about working together on co-creation and generating ideas and opportunities so that we can all unlock individuals and realise the collective potential that is here for the good of the region.
“To maximise what we can offer and differentiate ourselves in this space, we are looking at apprenticeships at all levels, more distance learning opportunities and short courses. All of these are ways of moving away the barriers and enabling students to connect to the university and make that journey into employment, realising that you can always be a part of York St John no matter what stage of your life you are at.
“For businesses it is about enabling them to release their employees if they want to develop particular skills for their organisation and working very specifically with them to see what their own requirements are and meeting their needs as well as those of the individuals.”
The dexterity required to embrace this ‘whole life’ strategy for its students is what sets the university apart from its rivals and the agility it has to adapt to new sectors and emerging technologies and underwrite their future growth with a commitment to keep them staffed with the brightest and broadest minds, is a game-changer for the region.
Postgraduate research at York St John provides an important ‘laboratory’ of new ideas and cutting edge technologies that support the region’s businesses, help draw in new companies keen to be at the centre of a cluster of opportunities, and provide them with staff who already know and may even have helped create the processes they are using.
As a postgraduate researcher – either self-funded or through a limited number of scholarships – students gain access to the university’s Graduate Centre and receive comprehensive training in research methods and highly transferable skills.
Workshops and seminars are supplemented by an annual internal research conference for staff and students to share ideas with colleagues outside of their specialist area and help spread best practice ideas. It is an approach that is clearly working, after the Higher Education Academy’s 2017 Postgraduate Research Experience Survey found that an impressive 95% of YSJ students gave the courses high marks.
“There has been a major refresh of our offer to postgraduates, including a discount for alumni who graduate with us so they can go immediately on to a Masters programme, and we want that to work on a sliding scale, where those who graduate with a First get a 50% discount on their Masters,” explained Prof Stanton.
“We are also expanding the programme quite significantly to reinvigorate what we do for our students and, very significantly, that will have an even more defined business focus with a Grad2Director scheme for students who don’t necessarily want to go into further education, but want to set up their own business. We want to make sure they have the highest level of support from us.
“They might be studying art and design now, but might not have a business background so through this programme we will help them develop the business skills they need to fulfil an ambition of running their own enterprise and developing a career for the future.”
The university has defined clear priorities to help students get the most out of their time in York, including Be Clear About Career which addresses the main goal of all high-quality educators – employability. Prof Stanton says this is much more than just a sit down and a chat about options.
“It is about helping students throughout their undergraduate time with us, and having a conversation with them in the first or second week after they join us about the next chapter for them. That is a key priority for us, as shown by the fact that 93% of our students are either in employment or further study within six months of leaving the university. And in the Government’s new Longitudinal Employment Outcome study, looking at the long-term earning prospects of students in sustained employment, we are in the top thirty in the country. That is a real achievement for us, underlining the amount of work we are putting in to make sure there is a long-term benefit to being a York St John student.
This is the sort of outcome the larger universities aim for, and it is the combination of these high-profile achievements and the personal care taken with each student here that is making such a difference and pushing it so much higher up the list of options for students looking for so much more than the grades at the end of term. Maintaining that balance is another priority for Prof Stanton and her team. Without either the level of academic achievement or the holistic approach to the years spent here, this would just be another university.
“We are now developing a strategy for 2026, which marks the 20th anniversary of us gaining the official title of York St John University. When you compare us to what others might have achieved, many are already 20 or 25 years old so I have said to the team that we need to focus on what we want to be in 2026.
“We are one of the smaller universities and that gives us one of our strengths when attracting students and an agility when dealing with businesses. But like any strong organisation we want to grow – and last year we were the fastest-growing university in England – so we are moving quite quickly and assuredly as a result of us continuing to review the portfolio that we have and make real changes around the curriculum. Our ambition for 2026 is to be a campus of about 10,000 students which will include an online population off campus of around 2,000.
“They will be studying a wide range of subjects, and we have particular experience in identifying and reflecting the swift changes in trends for what people want to come here for and how we can help them develop a career. A good example of that is that last year and so far this year we have seen a 50% rise in applications for Art and Design. Anything around the creative space is massive for us at the moment and Media and Media Production is also up by as much as 36%, but also Social Sciences and Psychology are up by more than 40% in the last two years. So we have introduced new programmes to meet that demand such as Criminology and Policing Studies which start this year in a space that will be enhanced by Politics and Law to make sure we are building where there is real sustained growth and a very strong prospect of long-term employment.
“For example, lots of business schools offer an MBA. But we don’t want to move into that general space, we want to offer something different with an MBA in Social Enterprise, working with Hiscox and the WaterAid charity and one in Disruptive Leadership, reflecting what is out there in the marketplace and looking at how managers can operate in such an environment, and in Creative Leadership to accommodate the surge in interest for our Art and Design courses.
“Having that agility is an area where we have developed a USP over the years, and the increase in numbers demonstrates how successful that has been. We are working with businesses and the third sector and the public sector, to understand what their requirements are and mining the market intelligence about what students want to study and how they want to be able to study in a way that suits them, using every component of what we have to offer.
“Students want to see that we are working closely with the industries where they see their futures and that can be very quick to market with new programmes for undergraduates and postgraduates because we realise that the work they move into may be in a sector that is not even developed when they start learning with us.
“There is a lot of talk about Artificial Intelligence and how that will change numerous jobs and we have just been talking to one major financial institution about how looking through and assessing a company’s books can be automated to an extent, which means the implications of that need to be added to the basic skills set for our accountancy students, who may not be required to do certain tasks by the time they graduate.
“What such employers are looking for is an outstanding set of skills, and the ability to be able to deal with clients – which can’t be automated. Because of the way we do things we are in a very strong position to deliver that well-rounded character in an employee and are be very cognisant of these changes when we design our programmes and deliver those graduate attributes.”
The university’s strategic objectives alongside Be Clear About Career – which includes an aim of every course having a work experience element – are Inspiring Learning and Impactful Research, which the titles speak for themselves in outlining the York St John approach to a lifelong relationship with businesses and students.
“There is a global context out there and we have a social responsibility to understand businesses and how they operate and what they need over and above the essential core skills.”
This leadership in a time of a skills challenge means there is an opportunity for educators to be creative themselves and work with LEPs and other anchor institutions on a strategy for the wide region and therefore the whole UK economy. The willingness is already there, but the hard work is in building a seamless collaboration to make it all happen.
“One of our concerns in looking at that wider picture is that we need more graduate-level jobs in this region,” said Prof Stanton. “Our students love it in North Yorkshire and they want to stay, but we suffer from a brain drain where they feel they have to go elsewhere to get a real graduate-level career. Then they are likely to come back once they have built a career, which is wonderful, but it shows the gap which exists at the moment.
“There is always more we can do, and we thrive on that sort of challenge. I have had an interesting couple of years so far, with radical changes in the higher education sector and the context we operate in. But we all work really hard here and are really delighted with the new agenda and its focus on the next decade and where we want to be in 2026.
“That means creating sustainable partnerships to bring together employers and their future employees and always putting the ethical principles of York St John at the heart of what we do, whoever we are working with. It gives us a great sense of continuing pride that almost 40% of the people on campus are either the first in their family to go to university or come from backgrounds where higher education would not necessarily be an option.
“That is a big responsibility for us to give any person coming to us the very best experience and every possibility of achieving the careers they have always wanted and they can all be assured that in changing the size and shape of the institution, our commitment to them and opening our doors wide to welcome anyone with a desire to learn remains the absolute core of York St John.”
The New Apprentice
How universities can plug the skills gap
It’s no secret that British business needs a skills boost to continue competing on a global stage. The government’s target of having three million apprenticeships in place by 2020 demonstrates their commitment to making that boost possible. What’s less well known is how degree apprenticeships can address high-level skills gaps and improve business performance.
Apprenticeships are nothing new, but the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy in April 2017 has catapulted degree apprenticeships into the spotlight. These higher education apprenticeships mean employees combining on-the-job training with flexible study can now get a foundation degree, bachelor’s degree or even a master’s degree in some sectors. With 1.3 per cent of the UK’s employers now committed to paying 0.5 per cent of their wage bill into the Apprenticeship Levy pot, it’s no wonder that businesses now need to know how to make the most of the funding available.
Developing a good apprenticeship programme means employers can attract employees with potential, enabling them to recruit from a larger pool of talent. Degree apprenticeships are also an opportunity to train existing staff in new knowledge and technologies, or to retain high calibre staff who are already motivated and engaged. The Chartered Management Institute (CMI), estimates that the average leadership and management apprentice can increase productivity by £214 per week and that 71 per cent of apprentices stay with the same employer once qualified.
This approach is also hugely attractive for employees. With tuition fees covered by the Apprenticeship Levy, candidates can earn as they learn, leaving them without the student loan debt accrued by their contemporaries.
Bob Gammie, Dean of York Business School, thinks degree apprenticeships can deliver a valuable solution to a range of businesses. “For employers who see apprenticeships as an integral part of their talent strategy, degree-educated employees can become a vital part of addressing higher level skills gaps”, he says.
It’s not just new hires that would benefit from degree apprenticeships. “At York St John University we offer a consultancy service to help identify those existing staff who’d benefit from investment in their skill set”, he adds.
“We also provide a range of pathways to higher education qualifications that can be tailored to suit anyone in an organisation, no matter what their current education level”.
Universities and colleges undoubtedly play a pivotal role in meeting industry needs and offer an increasing spectrum of higher and degree apprenticeships. York Business School at York St John University has launched its Chartered Manager degree apprenticeships including a bespoke BA (Hons) in Management and Leadership and Level 5 Diploma in Management and Leadership. The CMI accredited courses reflect the knowledge, competence and professional values required for management roles.
Higher education continues to evolve hand in hand with the demands of businesses of all sizes and qualifications are increasingly aligned with industry needs. Working in partnership is key, and York St John University is well positioned to respond to the needs of businesses that want to shape the direction of the qualifications on offer. Employers committed to responsible business practices will value the university’s ethos of social justice and sense of community and employees will gain a flexible approach to learning combined with coaching, mentoring and all the benefits of the student experience on campus.
“Degree apprenticeships are set to become a fact of life for both businesses and universities so it’s incredibly important that we work together to create a well-qualified workforce”, says Dr Gammie. “Apprenticeship Levy payments have a two-year time-limit so if you’re already paying for it – use it, or lose it”.