Professor Jane Turner is Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Engagement at Teesside University
When I took up my role as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Engagement at Teesside University last November, I made it my priority to get out and about talking to businesses to discover what they really want and need.
Through listening to business leaders I have been able to build a picture of their organisational challenges, particularly around how to be more innovative and how to build resilience. Little did I realise, though, that just months later we would be reflecting on the implications of Brexit, a change in Prime Minister, and an overhaul of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which has overseen HE for six years.
Whilst these developments over the summer have sent shockwaves throughout the UK and Europe, what has not been felt so widely is the huge economic blow suffered by the Tees Valley, which we in the North East were already coming to terms with and responding to. The closure of the SSI steelworks plant, resulting in 3,000 job losses, means the end of steel production at the 98-year-old Redcar works
At a regional, national and international level – the need for innovation and resilience has never been more necessary as we move forward, and that’s not just the business community. As universities we all talk about business support, or business engagement, but when the question comes up around ‘well, what do we do now?’ we have an obligation to step up. We have to prove that we can be agile, responsive, and relevant, and the recognised place to go to for new knowledge that will drive innovation. The current economic and political climate puts under the spotlight the role and responsibilities of a university in helping to revive an area following the closure of its main industry – and now in responding to the fall-out from Brexit.
Lord’s Heseltine report Tees Valley: Opportunity Unlimited has given the region a welcome steer on where we go next and as a university we are delighted to have a seat at the top table in planning the way forward. I’ve already taken my place on the Shadow Board of the South Tees Development Corporation with local authority leaders and local business people. The Board, in collaboration with the local community, will set the vision of the South Tees area, focusing on economic growth and inward investment, and establish the first Mayoral Development Corporation outside of London.
Our approach to business engagement is absolutely core to supporting the regional recovery
We will play a leading role in the strategic response to ensure successful delivery of the education and skills piece, which is so crucial to our overall plans going forward. That includes a strategic and focused conversation with schools, FE colleges and the business community about what this region is going to look like in 20 years’ time and therefore what skills are required so we can better understand our respective roles are in raising the aspiration, ambition and abilities of the people in our region.
Our approach to business engagement is absolutely core to supporting the regional recovery. We must make our research and expertise even more widely accessible to businesses to drive innovation in growing areas such as digital technology, health and social care, advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, and crime and forensics.
Digital technology is a particular catalyst for growth and as a university we have a track record for the successful application of digital solutions to problems faced by businesses in almost any industry or sector. This ranges from visualisation of construction processes which allow planners and builders to rehearse different phases of a project before they go on site, to the development of gaming technology to track the health and wellbeing of sports teams, and the creation of software to reduce costs and development time associated with the production of hybrid critical systems.
The professional development of employees will also play a key role in how we enable businesses to grow and prosper. Through our Executive and Professional Development Centre we plan to expand our existing offer to business, ensuring that organisations have access to relevant learning experiences for the key asset, people. We are also placing particular emphases upon student and graduate start-up, to ensure that the creation of a viable business is seen as a legitimate career option, an agenda we are successfully supporting through our DigitalCity and LaunchPad initiatives.
I’m very clear that we have to take the initiative – this is the role and responsibility of a university in its contribution to the region and beyond. Currently approximately 60% of our students come from the Tees Valley, so not only are we are perfectly placed to respond, we have an obligation to drive the strategic agenda and collaborate to secure the economic wealth, aspiration and prosperity of the region. And because we are already working with partners nationally and internationally we must and will bring those world-leading business insights and contacts back into the region.