A focus on industry links

Gaining real experience is a vital part of a degree, says Russ Thorne

In the competitive world of higher education, it can be difficult for prospective students to distinguish one course from another. In an effort to stand out, programmes across various disciplines are increasingly highlighting their links with industry as a selling point. And with good reason: connections to the professional world beyond university can have many benefits and potentially lift graduates' employment prospects.

Conrad Tracy, course leader of the Bachelors degree in commercial photography at the Arts University College Bournemouth (AUCB), says that one of the main benefits of these links is in allowing students to make a connection between the abstract concept of their course and the reality of working in the discipline.

"Students often have unfounded preconceptions of working environments and [employers'] expectations [of them]," he explains. "Through vocationally focused opportunities within a course structure, they get the opportunity to make informed choices about their future career."

The value and importance of links to industry is certainly at the front of prospective students' minds. According to Lynn Jones, head of the National School of Furniture (NSF) at Bucks New University, it's the "single most asked-about issue" by students enquiring about courses. "Parents are increasingly concerned about where their sons and daughters might work after their degree," she says, "and students appreciate the need to earn on graduation."

To address those concerns, the university is working with more than 40 companies and trade associations to help students prepare for life after graduation. The exact approach taken by individual universities will vary, since links with industry can mean many things, and some can be more meaningful than others, argues Alison Ahearn, principal teaching fellow in the faculty of engineering and department of civil and environmental engineering at Imperial College London.

"The type that are likely to yield student experiences that a graduate could talk about at a job interview would be industry links that have depth, duration, influence and sophistication," she says. An annual talk from an industry specialist would have to be "a stellar lecture" to stand out from the entirety of a course, for example. "But a six-month placement in industry, for degree credit, will yield much discussion at any future job interview."

There are many instances of industry and university collaboration across the UK. At Imperial, civil engineering students collaborate with construction firms on real projects, while at AUCB, students on the Bachelors degree in model making work with industry partners on some units. According to course leader Paul Johnson, this helps to further develop the curriculum through feedback from professional partners, as well as helping students improve their employability.

"Regular communication with our colleagues in industry has enabled us to guide our students to develop portfolios that target areas of stable employment and match the demand in industry," he explains.

At the University of Warwick, engineering students receive regular input from industry, with some courses taught by practising engineers. There's also the opportunity to take part in projects such as Formula Student, which sees students design and build a single-seater racing car and requires them to secure industry support. For Dr Tony Price, deputy head of teaching at Warwick's school of engineering, such links make a department an attractive recruitment target and offer a chance for students to develop skills that will be useful after graduation. "If a company is involved with a university department it encourages them to recruit," he says. "Beyond that, it provides students with an industrial understanding and confidence that must help in an assessment centre or interview for employment."

A course with close links to industry can improve career prospects, suggests Gary Argent, director of the careers and skills development service at City University London.

"While many graduate recruiters hire from a range of disciplines, the specific skills and experience you get from a degree closely aligned to a particular industry will help strengthen your CV, especially if [it] includes placement or internship opportunities in that sector," he says.

Where formal links with industry don't exist as part of the course structure, Ahearn recommends the DIY approach. "If you like a university but wish it had stronger industry links, then my advice would be go and make your own," she says.

To that end, she suggests a number of actions, including: joining any relevant professional bodies for the industry you're interested in and networking at evening events; becoming the industry liaison officer for the appropriate student society; seeking internships with research academics working with industry clients; and planning ahead for final-year projects and getting in touch with organisations well in advance.

Outside the spheres of specific industries, she also suggests joining a student-led humanitarian project. "By the time you graduate, the current leaders of the projects will be alumni from your university," she explains. "If they run student-led projects, they are proactive leaders and will be excellent industry contacts. The student-led project will also have industry sponsors: become the sponsorship officer and build the links with the industry partners."

Unfortunately, there can be no guarantees that cultivating links with industry will lead to a fruitful career in that industry. Charlie Ball, deputy director of research at the Higher Education Careers Services Unit, points out that the current job market is an unusual one. "Choosing to do a more vocational degree can fall foul of economic downturns in specific industries," he cautions.

So while links with industry are important, they're certainly not the only thing prospective students should consider, according to Johnson. "Successful students are passionate about their work and the industry they want to get into," he says, adding that environmental factors such as the campus, the studios, the resources and the areas they will be living in will affect the way students apply themselves.

The other important factor to a successful graduate career is preparing for the workplace while studying – regardless of how well connected a course is. Price says: "What is essential is that all students, whatever their discipline, take the opportunity to develop their employability skills. Graduates from less vocationally focused degrees will also find rewarding graduate employment. In reality, there will be opportunities wherever a student studies."

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