Building bridges to the North-east's graduates

Technology is helping the depressed region to keep its best talent.
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With unemployment in the North-east running at 7.8 per cent, well above the national average, employment for graduates is seen as one of the priorities for the region's universities. Traditional industries such as mining and ship-building may be declining, but the region is determined to try to keep graduates in the area to boost regeneration.

At the forefront of these initiatives is a scheme being run by Newcastle University, funded by BT. Called Nu-Line, it is a computer-based careers service which aims to link graduates throughout the region with vacancies in local businesses. It helps to get graduates jobs, and it encourages them to stay in the North-east, rather than moving south.

"We are very aware of the possibility of a brain-drain," says Mel Whewell, a former graduate of Newcastle University and now project manager of Nu- Line. "This scheme is designed to improve employment opportunities, especially for graduates living in the more rural areas of the region."

BT has so far put pounds 100,000 into the scheme, which aims to link Newcastle University's careers service with graduates who still haven't found work. Mr Whewell says: "Each year around 2,500 students graduate from this university - 85 per cent gain employment within six months, but that leaves 15 per cent who don't. Many of those students find themselves taking low-paid jobs like bar work to keep them going, but that means that travelling down to Newcastle or Gateshead for job interviews isn't a realistic possibility."

The North-east is the least-populated county in England. Aside from the big cities of Newcastle, Durham and Gateshead, there are vast rural areas stretching to the Cumbrian border and as far up as Berwick-on-Tweed. Transport in these areas is poor, and many graduates find that they simply can't get down to the cities to look for well-paid work which matches their abilities.

Under the new scheme, five computer terminals have so far been set up in local Business Link offices, libraries and community centres. Mr Whewell says: "All a student has to do is go along to their nearest centre and book a PC. This will also have a video-linked phone, which means they can speak face-to-face with a careers guidance officer. In this way they can run through the latest job vacancies available both locally and nationally - as well as work together on a CV, or job application.

"Because the PC is linked to ISDN, they can also share documents. All the PCs in the Careers Guidance office are linked to the Internet, which means the student can 'share' that link - and gives them access to the vacancy lists on our websites, too."

The aim is eventually to install 10 of these terminals around the region. Funding is also being sought to extend the links into Cumbria, and it is hoped the university will establish links with local further education colleges as well. Mr Whewell says: "Once we have this service established, there is no end to the possibilities. Our ultimate aim is to make the university much more accessible to the whole community, so we could offer distance learning courses, where students could go into their local FE college and link up with the university staff. Using the video phone they can have face-to-face tutorials. There are so many students at the moment we aren't reaching - simply because they can't travel to Newcastle."

The university is applying for European funding, to match the BT grant, so it can double the service. It is also hoped that the new service can be used for potential students.

"It can be used for student liaison," says Mr Whewell. "If someone is thinking of maybe taking chemistry or biology here, they can link up with an existing chemistry or biology student, to chat about what the course is like and how they find the university."

It is also hoped that local businesses will take advantage of the system. Already there is a successful scheme operating in the region which aims to make the expertise of the six main universities more accessible to local industry. Called The Knowledge House, it is run from Sunderland, and funded by the European Regional Development Fund and by the universities themselves. The six universities running the service are Newcastle, Durham, Teesside, Sunderland, the University of Northumbria and the Open University.

Mr Whewell says: "We see our universities as a resource for everyone in the region - there's no way we are simply ivory towers. This is a free service, which enables local businesses, large or small, to ring one central number. Staff at the Knowledge House then e-mail relevant staff so the business query can be put to a specialist."

For example, a local farmer could ring with a query about government grants - so the Department of Agriculture could offer information and advice - or a Northumberland business which wanted to get into the export market could ring the Business School.

Mr Whewell says: "It makes sense to link our local industry with the university, as there can be so much help and support. We have a large pharmaceutical company based here which links up frequently with our medical and chemical departments. GPs in rural practices ring up to talk to the consultants in our medical school. Already it is a very well-used service and we want to develop it even further."