Coventry teaches students the art of business

Madeleine Atkins is reinventing her university by laying on vocational degrees and ensuring students know how to set up their own businesses.

By Lucy Hodges
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:06

Professor Madeleine Atkins has one of the loveliest views of any vice-chancellor in the country. She looks out on to Coventry Cathedral, the building that was bombed in the Blitz and whose ruins sit alongside the modernist Basil Spence church.

The sight of the new structure beside the old could also be a symbol of Coventry, the university that Atkins runs and has cleverly reinvented in the past four years. Since she arrived, Coventry has reviewed every degree programme. "We looked at each course to see whether it was in line with the skills and knowledge demanded by the regional and national economy," says Atkins, a former comprehensive school teacher. "Over the four years, we changed quite a high proportion."

That is putting it mildly. The university has launched 20 new courses a year for the past three years, which meant phasing out a lot that weren't flourishing, such as single-honours chemistry. "We were not getting the applicants, and our graduates found there weren't the job opportunities when they came out," she says.

In their stead have come new programmes such as health and lifestyle management, aviation management, digital forensics and system security, and international disaster management. Such degrees provide training for new jobs in doctors' surgeries, in air travel, disaster management and to detect crime on the internet.

But perhaps her most striking reform has been to introduce enterprise and entrepreneurship to all students via a menu of modules and degree programmes. All Coventry's students can choose to do modules in setting up and running their own business. The result is that the university has 800 students at any one time taking modules in enterprise and entrepreneurship.

"We expect the students to be trading their company," she says.

The philosophy, says Atkins, is in keeping with the spirit of the West Midlands city, which was founded on the motor car, one of the growth industries of the 20th century. Then everything changed. The city is having to reshape itself, and the university is key to that.

For a while, Coventry, and the West Midlands generally, were not good at sprouting entrepreneurs and business start-ups, but Atkins is determined that will change. She is proud to have the support of the local Institute of Directors, which provides mentoring by local business people to budding student entrepreneurs. And she says the key to creating a new culture of entrepreneurship is to make setting up your own business a perfectly normal thing to do while you are at university.

"It's an alternative to part-time work, because they make money," says Atkins. "We find that employers are very interested in people who have shown that kind of spark."

Coventry has really thought through its entrepreneurship programme, creating a path that leads back into the schools and colleges and forward into incubator units, the business park and on into the city. The university develops relationships with interested schools, offering scholarships to students who can show that they have done "something pretty enterprising", according to the vice-chancellor.

They are given every conceivable support and produce, it is hoped, ideas for products or services that will really take off or make a difference to people. One such student is Daniel Sheridan, who, as part of his Masters in consumer product design, hit upon the idea that children could generate power for their classroom while they were playing.

He conceived the idea while doing voluntary work in Kenya, noticing that large numbers of African schools didn't have electricity. He realised that something designed to be played on could create energy at the same time. And so his see-saw was born. It has now become a business venture and means that a school can power four lanterns for three to four hours.

Daniel has received a great deal of mentoring and financial help. His see-saw kit is being thoroughly tested at the university and has won a lot of awards. He is hoping now that the product can be rolled out across Africa.

Not surprisingly, Coventry does applied, rather than pure, research. It is also extremely international and has appointed David Pilsbury, former chief executive of the Worldwide Universities Network, as pro-vice-chancellor for international development. His job is to move Coventry from being a university with many international students to being an international university.

Last year it had 3,500 international students from 130 different countries. Coventry aspires to be the first global modern university by giving all students some international experience and renewing the curriculum so that it deals with global issues. "I do think that universities like Coventry are the future, because it's prepared to do new and interesting things," says Pilsbury.

At the moment, Coventry is looking to condense its three-year degree into two years. "We have to find a way to open up higher education," says Pilsbury. "Everyone believes that it is key." Watch this space.

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