‘Students and academics cannot sit in isolation from business’

Universities have a civic obligation to push forward the economic evolution of their regional economy

When you think about the role that universities need to play in our society what immediately springs to mind?

Without wanting to play ‘Family Fortunes’, it’s probably a good guess that your answer might be along the lines of the need for universities to ensure students are developing the skills, qualifications and experience they’ll need to ensure they go into the jobs market fully prepared.

This is, of course, true. However, I’d add that of equal importance is the need for universities to play a creative and proactive role in ensuring that those high-value and high-skilled jobs exist for students to go into once their studies have concluded.

Let’s face it, it’s going to be tough for the next generation. The current economic landscape makes for grim reading.

The Office for National Statistics states the UK’s unemployment rate rose to 4.8 per cent in the three months to September, up from 4.5 per cent, as the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to take their toll on the jobs market.

Redundancies rose to a record high of 314,000 in the same period, as employers anticipated the end of the (subsequently extended) furlough scheme.

In the short term it’s going to be a tough winter for employers, and longer term there’s undoubtedly going to be a hard climb back to pre-Covid levels for the economy.

This is why we need all hands to the pump and why universities need to step up and engage directly with local and regional businesses.

Our society cannot afford for universities to be lofty institutions that stand apart from the communities that surround them.

Universities are catalysts for change, and sitting alongside a responsibility for transforming the lives of the people who choose to study there should be a civic obligation to push forward the economic evolution of their regional economy.

Universities are not just drivers for education and research – they also have a part to play in building and reshaping the jobs market; interfering in the economy in productive ways.

Staffordshire University is one of 20 University Enterprise Zones, announced last September and launched with a £20 million investment by Research England, part of UK Research and Innovation.

On 16 November, the Staffordshire Innovation and Enterprise Zone (IEZ) launches after the University bid for a share of that money and also secured further funding to enable us to respond to the economic needs of our city and our wider region.

In an example of partnership working, the university’s bid for Research England Development funding was supported by external partners including Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce and Stoke-on-Trent & Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership.

We see it as part of our civic responsibility to engage with employers, and the university has an important part to play in creating high-value jobs that our graduates can apply for, to drive productivity, innovation and growth in specialist areas – and provide SMEs with a vital stepping-stone to succeed.

The initial investment has funded new incubation space and a hatchery for start-up companies on our main Stoke-on-Trent campus.

It has also funded new Innovation labs, which sit alongside our Smart Zone, and these are being kitted out with the very latest advanced materials and manufacturing technology, which we are making available to SMEs on our patch.

As of 16 November, it is open for business. The IEZ will act as an ecosystem to bring together businesses, technology, research and academic expertise in an environment that allows ideas to flourish and innovation to grow.

This would always have been an important step but arguably it’s needed more now than ever before as we are in a prime position to help the region’s economic recovery from Covid-19.

Students and academics cannot sit in isolation from business – at Staffordshire University, our academics are carrying out research in exciting new areas, which is relevant to companies and can help their growth and development.

Equally, our students can add strength to a company’s plans to bring a new product to market or to introduce more cost-efficient processes – this in turn provides them with valuable work and industry experience before or after they graduate.

Of course, this is just the latest example of how we have worked with businesses – supporting local employers isn’t a new idea. In fact, Staffordshire University has helped secure £11m in support for businesses in the last three years.

The new University Enterprise Zone status is the umbrella over a number of funded projects, some of which are already yielding some really exciting results.

For example, Staffordshire Digital Innovation Partnerships programme is a collaborative project between Staffordshire University and Staffordshire County Council to drive transformation through digital innovation in the region.

Its aim is to create 36 partnerships between Staffordshire SMEs and Staffordshire University. These partnerships are supporting businesses to transform by adopting innovative digital technologies.

The university has also joined forces with Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce to help businesses in the county access funding to create hundreds of jobs for 16 to 24-year-olds through the government-backed Kickstart Scheme.

Universities like Staffordshire have the capability, opportunity and responsibility to support the places where they are based, and it’s never been more imperative that higher education steps up to the challenge.

Professor Professor Martin Jones is deputy vice chancellor of Staffordshire University

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