Wilson Review praises Aston University

Business meeting

28 February 2012

The Government set up a review of how universities work with business late last year. It was chaired by Professor Sir Tim Wilson, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire. The review reported back on Tuesday 28 February.

The purpose of the review was to find better ways to encourage wealth production and innovation – which our universities in Birmingham are well placed to lead.

Professor Helen Higson OBE, Senior Pro Vice Chancellor of Aston University, was a member of the Steering Group and was delighted by the findings of the review which endorse the distinctive approach of Aston University.

She said: "Universities and Businesses would struggle without each other. Innovation and enterprise are dependent on new ways of thinking and the application of academic research. A skilled workforce is dependent on highly employable graduates. These themes were central to the Wilson review and they have always been central to Aston University .The 2012 Sunday Times University Guide summarised Aston’s position by saying ‘you will struggle to find a university in Britain more keenly attuned to the needs of business and industry.’"

Two key messages of the Wilson Review to Government are that:

  • Sandwich degrees should be encouraged through a new compact with Government, Employers and Universities

  • Every Full time undergraduate should have the opportunity to experience an internship. Government should examine the feasibility of supporting companies that host students through a tax credit

This should start with universities making sure they are doing everything they can to help their students prepare for the workplace.  The 2012 High Fliers survey of graduate recruiters suggested that one in three graduates will be recruited by a business or organisation they are already known by. In practice this means that they will have completed an internship or placement year. The sandwich degree, where a work placement is integrated into the course, and is structured and supervised, is proven to enhance employment prospects and even improve degree outcomes.  But sadly, relatively few UK Universities currently promote placement degrees.  Aston has always done so, and the majority of Aston students take a work placement or year abroad. This is why our employability ranking is so high with 87.7% of Aston graduates getting a graduate level job in six months of leaving. Placements don’t just provide employment experience but they also help students develop their self-confidence and ensure graduates are used to the disciplines of the jobs market – such as punctuality, organisational skills and meeting deadlines.

Given the tough job market, current students should make the most of the long vacations and use them to develop their skills and gain valuable work experience.  And universities can work with industry to help this happen.  Internships have had a bad press recently.  But rather than an opportunity that is only open to the wealthy or well connected, they should be seen as a way of gaining valuable employability skills while still at university. The Aston Students’ Guild Job Shop provides students with reliable part-time and vacation work, with clear policies relating to term time working. These are paid vacancies with local employers, and they have all been vetted to ensure suitability, and they help students to build up a CV that will help them to stand out from the crowd.

Such support should also continue after students have graduated.  With backing from the European Regional Development Fund, ten West Midlands Universities have come together to create Graduate Advantage. This is unique in the UK but could function as a prototype to be replicated across the country. Based at Aston, it is a one stop shop offering graduates the cream of locally sourced paid and voluntary internships, for up to a year in duration. They range across all sectors from IT to Design. Graduate Advantage’s website has a search facility, where all internships are on display.  This programme stands out as a way to develop and manage internships in a professional and beneficial manner.

Two other important recommendations of the Wilson Review are that:

  • An innovation voucher scheme should be introduced via the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPS)

  • The Technology Strategy Board should be encouraged to expand Knowledge Transfer Partnerships to meet the needs of business

There are many ways in which academic research can be of benefit to business. In choosing to collaborate with a University a business might be seeking to develop new products, services or processes, or to recruit new ways of thinking. Aston University has over two decades of experience on bringing business together with higher education, and was the 2011 Midlands Enterprising University of the Year as well as the National Winner of the Times Higher Award for Knowledge Transfer.

Innovation Vouchers were pioneered by Aston and they represent and easy, low risk way for Small and Medium Business to work alongside a university. The current scheme awards a £3000 voucher to an eligible business for it to purchase support of its choosing.

A Knowledge Transfer Partnership is a longer term collaboration and can encompass a wider set of deliverables from product development through to marketing. Aston's School of Engineering & Applied Science has a KTP with security technology company Pace Systems which has seen a 50% increase in International sales of new products.

Professor Helen Higson concludes: "It is crucial that schemes such as Knowledge Transfer Partnership continue to grow, so that UK companies in great cities like Birmingham have the ability to access the research and expertise that will ensure they can innovate, grow, and generate new jobs.

"Aston University welcomes the Wilson Report and is delighted that it has highlighted many of our strengths as being areas that others can learn from and build upon."

For further information contact David Farrow (d.farrow@aston.ac.uk