Smart Moves: Corporate universities threaten the old guard

The battle between companies and mainstream universities for the hearts and minds of British youth is growing in intensity as global competition heats up.

The number of corporate universities has steadily increased over the past 10 years, posing a direct threat to established seats of learning throughout the UK. Already, a nervous Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, which represents more than 100 universities, is warning that the increase in competition represents "a key challenge facing the UK university system".

Not everyone sees the inroads into academia that large corporations are making as a threat, however; such initiatives, they argue, are complementing the existing system rather than replacing it. But with universities themselves becoming more autonomous and financially accountable, the rivalry is set to intensify.

Competition comes from organisations such as Anglian Water with its "University of Water", British Aerospace and its "virtual university", McDonald's "Hamburger University", Unipart's "U", and Motorola's "University of Europe, Middle East and Africa". Now BT looks like it's going to get in on the educational act too, with plans to set up on-site learning bases for its 125,000 employees, offering tailor-made degrees and vocational courses, turning it into one of the world's largest education institutions.

It would be designed to maintain BT's competitiveness against its rivals in the US, where about 6,600 corporate universities are well established. The BT Academy - to provide an "effective umbrella" for BT's training and research programme - is expected to operate a series of colleges, each specialising in a particular subject. BT sources sought to play down the rumours, however, saying its in-house training is merely being restructured.

So why are companies muscling in on education rather than doing what they've always done - providing training through apprenticeships? The move can be partly seen as an indictment of higher education's over-academic training. Britain's polytechnic system sought to redress the balance in the 1960s but the problem was so deeply entrenched that the task needed more radical restructuring than a handful of institutions could ever achieve.

The rapid pace of technological change has meant that companies have had to pay far more attention to the re-training and updating of skills of its employees. Power and prestige lie increasingly with the growing army of IT knowledge workers.

Globalisation also demands strong branding, so international companies achieve their impact by making their operations and image consistent throughout the world. There is no variation in the look and behaviour of McDonald's outlets, for example, and this is achieved by the core training given to "crew members" by its Hamburger Universities. Likewise, its UK managers - 9,500 pass through the dreaming spires of its academies in East Finchley, Woking, Sutton Coldfield and Manchester each year - are similarly processed by 20 full-time training consultants.

In today's topsy-turvy world of downsizing and short-term contracts, the long-term prospects that companies with universities potentially provide may be far more of a lure for a young person than a dry and dusty mainstream university course. Tom Bacon, restaurant manager at the McDonald's branch in Harborne, West Midlands, certainly thought so. "I started out at McDonald's part-time while I was a student," he said. "I could see a definite career path so I stayed on after my degree. Friends who gave me a hard time then are impressed now - I have responsibility for 35 staff."

Being mindful of the personal and professional development of staff also helps companies to retain their employees. Loyalty and continuity of employment have again become buzz words in industry and corporate universities have a vital role to play in achieving this.

At the centre of Unipart's U is the belief in employee development. This involvement of staff - nearly half the company is owned by employees - means that much of the decision-making process is a direct result of the deliberations of its "Our Contribution Counts" (OCC) circles. Problems in the workplace are brought to these regular get-togethers and thrashed out between managers and workers before reaching a consensus.

Like Motorola, Unipart extends its learning facilities to its suppliers and customers so that "everyone is speaking the same language". Tying in stakeholders in this way helps ensure market continuity. Participants also get the feeling of belonging, something that alienating technology is eroding.

"The Unipart U has become the platform from which we can see the directions for the future," said John Neill, group chief executive. "There's a good commercial argument for it. It's a route to competitive advantage and it enhances shareholder value by preventing our people's skills from becoming obsolete."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Neil Pavier: Management Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you looking for your next opportunity for ...

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ACA/ACCA/ACMA qua...

Laura Norton: Project Accountant

£50,000 - £60,000: Laura Norton: Are you looking for an opportunity within a w...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?