Mind the gap report – Coventry University case study

Coventry University – Partnership with Unipart Manufacturing Group to develop the Institute for Advanced manufacturing and Engineering (AME)

AME is a large scale collaboration between Coventry University and Unipart Manufacturing Group. The AME building is a new facility supported by HEFCE’s Catalyst Fund (£7.9m), located at the Unipart Powertrain Applications manufacturing site in Coventry. Designed as a bespoke ‘Faculty on the Factory Floor’, it is underpinned by a shared focus on teaching and skills, high-quality research and the core business of developing and applying energy and powertrain related technologies for the automotive, aerospace, oil and gas, rail and renewables industry sectors. The partnership involved considerable investment from both sides. Unipart contributes £17.9 million towards the partnership and a further £6.5 million towards student scholarships and product research and investment.

Origins and rationale

The West Midlands manufacturing and engineering sector suffers skills shortages with a large number of major employers attempting to recruit from a limited pool. To overcome this, the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) set a target of 5,000 new or unskilled engineers by 2015. It also aimed to increase the number of local SMEs active in research and development.

To engage with this agenda, Coventry University and Unipart agreed to build a partnership that incorporated joint research and development activity, supported by a proposed new facility at Unipart.

How does it operate in practice? 

The partnership is embedded in each organisation’s strategy and involves teachers, trainers and researchers (from both) working together alongside students. Coventry University’s ‘activity-led learning’ model underpins teaching, prioritising practical, work-based learning for students. Industrial advisory boards are active in curriculum designs to ensure that programmes remain relevant. The new building and manufacturing equipment has been designed to provide learning spaces and resources.

AME recruited its first cohort of over 30 students in September 2014 and it offers BEng, MEng (Hons) and MSc programmes. Selected students receive scholarships of £3,000 and access to summer placements from Unipart. Students can also access career development opportunities after graduation including management training, internships, international placement, and employment opportunities across the Unipart Group and with other leading manufacturers. AME also offers fully funded PhD studentships.

AME also supports Coventry’s employment-focused initiatives such as the Add+Vantage scheme (the university’s compulsory employability module based around the workplace) and the Faculty of Engineering and Computing’s ‘EC Futures’ programmes which focus on employability and work experience for students.

What works well and why?

Strong leadership from both organisations’ senior teams has been vital to success. As has shared fundamental principles such as a focus on skills development in a workplace environment, close collaboration on applied research, co-location to foster communication, and a design to align both partners’ measures of success.

External support from the Local Enterprise Partnership and the HEFCE Catalyst Fund has also been important. This gave Unipart and Coventry University sufficient confidence to release their own funds to support the initiative. Accreditation from relevant professional bodies (Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers) enhanced its reputation among potential students (particularly from outside the UK) and employers.

AME’s facilities and expertise – as a University research centre – has already been used to secure funding for low-carbon technology research projects focused on aerospace, automotive, rail, oil and gas, and power generation. It has received funding for six research projects worth over £2.5m.

What were/are the key challenges and how were they addressed? 

Developing new industry-focused and globally relevant programmes involving considerable employer input proved time-consuming. Meanwhile, new working practices created to fit the new ‘Faculty on the Factory Floor’ approach has required time to bed in.

Senior level engagement, the co-location of staff, and joint appointments, have fostered the collaboration and the culture change required to work together effectively and speed-up decision-making.

Future plans and developments

The partnership plans to increase its recruitment of staff and students over the coming years. Coventry is considering whether this model of deep engagement can be adapted for other STEM disciplines. While fundamental principles are transferable, using this model elsewhere must recognise the specific needs of different partnerships and industries.

Read the full report here.

Further reading