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The employer perspective on universities' promotion of opportunities to engage with the STEM UG curriculum

Lead Institution: Bournemouth University

This is a sub-project of Get STEM working: innovation with employer and student engagement

Update reports

Project Progress - November 2011

A review has been undertaken of existing resources, toolkits, guidelines, and case studies that provide support or guidance to employers in engaging with the STEM undergraduate curriculum. This will evolve into the basis of a set of guidelines/toolkit which will be reviewed and evaluated with local employers who have experience of working with universities in relation to the UG STEM curriculum in order to gain their feedback on these existing materials. 

Some findings

In terms of benefits to employers of collaborating with HEIs, literature cites the following: a potential source of recruitment of students, enhancing employers' reputation, commercial benefits including access to knowledge, expertise and the use of facilities, staff development and enjoyment and influencing the curriculum.

Barriers to becoming involved include poor communication between the HEI and employers including a poor perceived image of academia, lack of time or other resources, the timing of the project or placement may not tie in with the employer's requirements or the students' skill level may not be adequate.

Good practice when collaborating includes improving communication between the HEI and employers, building relationships and networking to get initial contacts and to gain from them, incentivising employers by marketing the use of facilities and expertise, involving employers in curriculum deve,opment , using innovative structures such as sending staff on secondment from the academic institution to the employer to build relationships/ gain an understanding of the needs of employers and alternative technologies to get students the work-based experience.

Initial findings from the first few interviews includes that employers value approaches based on existing relationships, gaining contacts through networking events and being "commercial" when talking to employers making it clear what is in it for them. Finally employers believe that understanding the business and needs of the employer lies at the heart of finding placement / project opportunities.

Next steps

Interviews/focus groups are taking place with existing employers to evaluate the existing guidelines/toolkit, following which feedback will inform the development of alternative approaches to promoting opportunities. Eight employers have been approached and the first  four interviews have been conducted.  The final number of interviews will depend on the responses.

The alternative materials and approaches to be trialled with STEM employers in Jan/Feb 2012 and an assessment will be made of the feedback to inform the development of a toolkit.

Project progress - December 2011

A literature review based on 13 reports or journal articles has been completed as well as online case study online, ongoing project reports and web content and is available on the collaborative website. Findings from this included that employers saw potential benefits in engaging with HEIs such as potential recruitment, enhancing employer reputation, commercial benefits such as access to knowledge, expertise and use of facilities, staff development and influencing curriculum. Barriers to engagement included poor communication, lack of time or other resources, timing of the collaboration (e.g. a placement of project), the students’ skill level. Suggestions for improvement covered better communication, building relationships and using facilities, benefits and marketing for employers as incentives for collaboration.

In the Autumn of 2011 six employers from South West SMEs (and one large multinational) with a range of numbers of employers (for the SMEs) from about 20 to 120 working within the engineering / manufacturing sector were interviewed. These companies all have had some form of collaboration with HEIs.

Analysis of these interviews confirms much of what was discussed in the literature review. Questions had been formulated to take into account findings from the literature and had an emphasis on discovering how to improve the communication process.

Communication between HEIs and employers seems to be at the heart of the issues surrounding engaging employers. Employers are often willing to collaborate (if there is a discussion demonstrating cost benefit), students and universities are willing but there is a general lack of awareness between the parties as to the opportunities available to them.

As one employer put it “the university structure throughout the UK is a massive source of potential to help industry and there’s a yawning gap between the two”.

Their degree of involvement historically has varied from having had placement students to a KTP with the HEI. Despite already having collaborated, employers demonstrated a general lack of awareness of the opportunities open to them for collaboration. This varied from being unaware of who to contact should they want to have a placement student or do a project, to lack of knowledge about the facilities and assistance that the university could offer them.

They agreed that it is the HEI that needs to be proactive in beginning this communication process, whilst acknowledging that getting the attention of the person who would be able to make decisions is no mean feat. Phone calls, emails and brochures are likely to be ignored by most and not all employers felt they would have the time to visit the university, for a networking event or open-day. Some but not all felt the use of social media such as Linkedin could be effective. Employers may initially resist receiving a member of staff at their offices as well and so it was felt that the most successful way of getting a foot in the door, would be to leverage an existing relationship or contact. To start the process of establishing a new relationship it would be necessary to have some kind of “hook” to attract the attention of that employer. This would need to take the form of “what the HEI can do for the employer”. Most of the interviewed companies felt that it would be worthwhile for the HEI to visit the company to scope for opportunities  Once through the door, the person making contact would need to be in the mindset of the employer, in terms of thinking about how the HEI can help move that employer’s business forward. Off the back of that opportunities for students could emerge.

The analysis of the interviews has now been completed and will shortly be made available on the collaborative website and a toolkit will now be worked on. This will take the form of guidelines for HEIs wishing to engage with employers and will be trialled with six employers who do not currently collaborate with HEIs.

An institutional seminar was held on 29th November 2011 attended by the Vice-Chancellor and Dean as well as senior staff from other schools. Discussion included this project. It is intended that a further seminar at the institution will be held in the New Year. Other dissemination events include road-shows at Bournemouth University (6th March 2012) and University of the West of England (7th March 2012) and at Plymouth University on 25th May 2012.

Project progress - March 2012

A literature review of employer engagement has been carried out and the learning from this underpinned the structure of questions for the initial employer interviews. Data gathering is now complete.  Six employers (n=6) who currently engage with HE were interviewed, two focus groups and individual interviews with institutional staff have been completed (n=14 institutional staff in total), and a further n=4 employers who do not currently engage with the institution have now also been interviewed.  The data is currently being analysed and themes emerging have been used to inform the development of a draft employer engagement toolkit.  The project team has also met with the institutional pro vice chancellor when the themes and toolkit were described.    Interestingly, each of the groups (both the external employer participants and internal institutional staff) identified similar problems and frustrations which included data management, communication routes, lack of awareness about collaborative opportunities.   In line with the literature, we found that existing employers cited: access to latest technology and expertise;  fresh knowledge and thinking from students; HE support with research grant bids, value of placements as a cost benefit and potential graduate recruitment opportunity as potentially beneficial.  However, a number of barriers were also identified including: poor communication, lack of awareness about opportunities; time and cost associated with employing placement students; bureaucracy or perceived difficulty in the process and the timeliness of collaboration. 

Currently engaged employers had a number of ideas for improving engagement which were often around improving communication, for example, a desire for the HEI to be more proactive, having a single point of contact, and setting up opportunities to discuss mutually beneficial opportunities.  These points were commonly mentioned by currently non-engaging employers who also added not being able to find ‘ways in’ to setting up collaborations, wanting a single point of contact.   One central theme that was cited by both employers and institutional staff was that there should be employed a business facing individual that could act as an interpreter between the HEI and industry. The internal staff felt that each HEI faculty should have such an individual and that this person could also liaise across the HEI as well as vertically within it. This person would facilitate contact with industry and would act as an interpreter between the two worlds and speak the language of the employer. Initial contact with industry would need to be in the form of “what HEI can do for the employer” and would need to be light touch. Once an initial relationship is established it could then develop to heavier type commitments such as KTPs or placements.

Once analysis is completed a case study will be made available on the collaborative website and a revised institutional self review toolkit of effective employer engagement will be developed and also made available.  The work of the project is being disseminated at:  two proposed workshop events in May 2012, an HE STEM project leads event in Exeter on 23rd April and the HE STEM conference on 18th June in Exeter as well as having been showcased at an institutional internal seminar.

Staff involved

Christine Keenan
Project lead, Bournemouth University

Penny Mitchell
Project coordinator, Bournemouth University

Dr Xavier Velay
Bournemouth University