University opens its front door to business

A new centre in London's Docklands wants to marry up employers with the local workforce.
Click to follow
For the past 15 years London's Docklands has been transforming itself. It has done so with tax breaks and swanky loft spaces, with investment from government and the arrival of large corporations. A once grim area is buzzing with new life and has a red-and-blue train and a high-rise to beat all high-rises, Canary Wharf.

Beneath the glittering surface, however, poverty and unemployment remain. The area has one of the highest levels of unemployment in London. But a new development is hoping to change that. In September, a technology centre is opening to help existing firms - mainly small and medium-sized businesses - to become more competitive. The Thames Gateway Technology Centre will stand at the northern end of the Royal Albert Dock opposite City Airport's runway. It hopes to play a vital part in regenerating east London.

Based at a new campus of the University of East London, it will provide a range of services to business as well as involving the students by sending them on secondments to firms.

"It's the university's front door to local business and industry," says UEL vice chancellor Frank Gould. "It has several objectives. One is technology transfer, to help make local industry more competitive through improving its technical know-how. Another is improving the skills of the local workforce and a third is to produce spin-off companies to reinvigorate the local economy." Science parks or incubation units where universities nurture new companies have been a feature of British higher education for some time but there have been few in London. One of the first was at the University of the South Bank in south London. There has been nothing in east London until now. UEL's technology centre is unusual in that it is more than a conventional science park because it plans to reach out into the community to offer its services.

To fund the centre, UEL and its partners, which include London Guildhall University and Queen Mary and Westfield College London, have managed to win a pounds 7.8 million grant from the Government's Single Regeneration Challenge Fund. "The centre will be a single front door for employers to access the institutions of higher education and anything they may offer to assist employers in the efficiency of their operations," says centre director, Dr David Hall.

For new businesses, the centre will provide 28 purpose-built start-up units on campus. But Dr Hall wants to enable local firms to use the university's resources - all universities have rooms and equipment which are barely used for large parts of the year. "When I walked into the university on 1 June last year I was staggered by the wealth of resources that the university had that are so underused," he says. "At that time all the students were studying, so none of the classrooms were being used because all the academic staff were tied up in exam-related stuff. They then went out on summer vacation and didn't come back until 23 September."

The trick, according to Dr Hall, is to find a way of attracting businesses. That probably means not emphasising the university connection because the culture of business is so different from academe. "We're looking at any opportunities for technology transfer, taking technology and spinning it out," he says.

One of UEL's strengths is in multimedia. Its department is rated five - the top grade - in the research assessment exercise. It is setting up a joint venture with a commercial outfit called Digital University Press that will allow the university to produce educational materials in digestible format using multimedia capability. Dr Hall's dream is that someone will come along with an MBA and ask for it to be converted to multimedia.

Everyone's stereotype of the East End is that it's full of market traders. But there is still some manufacturing and Dr Hall has found much of the local business is professional - accountants, lawyers and so on. The vast majority (96 per cent) are small firms, having fewer than 20 staff, and there are serious skills shortages in many firms, particularly in information technology. Firms can't make improvements because they can't afford the time and money to send employees on training courses.

The technology centre is hoping to change that. The university has more than 1,000 top-of-the-range computers for teaching. The centre wants local people to use them. It has found that more than 60 per cent of businesses across Tower Hamlets and Newham are not considering using the internet.

"For too long universities have taken the view that their role in life is to produce clever individuals with scant regard for their empoyability," Dr Hall says. "We want to feed back the employers' requirements into the university."

Finally, he is hoping that employers will beat a path to the new campus, probably out of hours and in the evenings, to receive a cocktail of invited speakers and short courses delivered specially to the business community.