How Academe is helping students - and the nation - survive the slump

By Lucy Hodges
Tuesday 25 February 2014 02:29
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The notion that universities are ivory towers, training people to do useless and self-indulgent things, is being put to rest in the recession – because many universities are falling over themselves to lay on short courses for unemployed people or arrange industry placements for their graduates.

More than 70 universities and colleges have won a share of £27m in government funding under a scheme to help the nation recover from the economic slump.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England awarded the biggest single sum – £1m – to the new University of Cumbria, on the English-Scottish border where people are recovering from the loss of coal and steel and which had one of the worst performing sub-regional economies in Europe even before this recession. The money will be used to help graduates who are unemployed, looking for work or under threat of redundancy.

"We have always seen the idea of supporting business and enterprise as a key part of our mission," says Professor Chris Carr, the university's vice chancellor. "This was one of the reasons why we were set up and we have to pursue that."

The plan is to support 200 graduates to get jobs, by improving their CV writing skills and helping them obtain short-term placements with small businesses, Kevin Boles, the head of enterprise at the university, said. In addition, the university hopes to establish at least 10 new businesses.

"The graduate work placements are important," says Boles. "They will help ensure that graduates' CVs look better – and we need to build the confidence of small businesses that we have the ability to support them.

"If they get to know our graduates and if we are able to help them innovate and get through bad times, we can send a strong message that we have the right formula for them."

Around Carlisle, the university is hoping to develop a digital hub where software companies, specialising in modelling and games, will be encouraged to set themselves up.

Universities and colleges have to match the funding provided by the government, so the total sum being spent on this recession-busting initiative will be more than £50m.

At the other end of the country, University College London has won £500,000 to give up to 135 students the chance to undertake internships with businesses in London. It also has 560 places for students and local people in intensive business language training courses in Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin and European languages.

In addition, it is laying on an intensive, week-long, summer "boot camp" in entrepreneurship to teach UCL graduates the basics of starting up a business, reading balance sheets and producing business plans.

The University of the Arts, housing the art colleges of Central St Martin's, Chelsea, Wimbledon and others, is using its money to hold a two-day festival, open to graduates from any college or university.

This will enable art and design graduates to find out about jobs and placements, meet employers, take workshops to improve their skills and plan their futures. In addition, the University will put on courses to serve as a bridge between university and work, and offer mentoring to people wanting to set up their own businesses.

"We were very concerned that, although the creative industries had been growing, it would be difficult to maintain that growth in these difficult circumstances," says Debi Hayes, the university's dean of creative enterprise.

Other universities and colleges in the South-east to have won money through the Economic Challenge Investment Fund are Reading, Surrey, Oxford Brookes and the Royal Veterinary College. The University of Reading, which was awarded £689,185, has for sometime been looking at the skills gap in the pharmaceutical industry – the fact that employers complain graduates do not have the skills they need to go straight into work.

Graduates lack team-work skills, for example, as well as the ability to act on their own initiative, and some laboratory skills.

"Pharmaceuticals is one of our big manufacturing industries," says Professor Christine Williams, Reading's pro-vice chancellor for enterprise.

"But it faces big threats from the Far East because China and India are keen to improve the skills of their people. There is a real risk that the industry could move their manufacturing to the Far East if we can't produce the graduates that firms like Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline want."

Thus Reading and Surrey universities plan to lay on some specialist summer vacation modules as well as internships for new graduates in chemistry, bio-statistics, biological sciences and biomedical sciences.

They plan to employ well-qualified people as industry fellows to look at what is lacking in their science, technology and engineering graduates.

"We want to create a cadre of industry fellows who are familiar with academe and industry," says Williams.

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