Collaboration and the social dimension at the heart of innovation

Dr Eddie McCaffrey

Professional and technical universities like those across the Alliance have great links to the creative industries – but creative graduates often find the transition to employment difficult. Dr Edward McCaffrey, Senior Lecturer in Film Production at Middlesex University writes about how he worked collaboratively to boost employability prospects for creative arts graduates.

“When I started thinking about this blog, an old business adage sprung to mind: ‘success breeds success’. It’s the same with innovation: the more one innovates, the more innovation comes along.

But, for me, innovation without purpose, a social dimension, is nothing more than a vanity project. And innovation without collaboration is, in my opinion, a non-starter.  The two are like a Celtic knot: inextricably intertwined.

In an epiphanic moment in 2016, having completed my doctoral studies, I realised two significant issues about Film [Production] degree programmes that were being taught at many universities throughout the UK, including my own: firstly, the curriculum had barely changed in 30 years and, secondly, our students were effectively ‘on their own’ in terms of employment, especially when they graduated. As a result, students – particularly underrepresented students – were struggling to find work in the screen industries.

I knew in that moment, that I had to do something, but I also knew I could not do anything on my own. And so began my ‘Connect, Collaborate and Co-Create’ strategy, to bring normally ‘siloed’ stakeholders together, to work collaboratively to tackle shared problems, and to co-create solutions that would benefit everyone involved.

“Students – particularly underrepresented students – were struggling to find work in the screen industries. I knew in that moment, that I had to do something, but I also knew I could not do anything on my own.”

The first significant connection was Film London and our first act was a ‘Listening Tour’ of animation/film/TV studios across London to ask them what they thought of graduates and universities’ screen industries curriculum, in terms of employability. Their answers, though negative, proved to be the catalyst to bring others into the Middlesex University/ Film London ‘partnership’ orbit.

In December 2018, we brought around 70 academics and screen industries stakeholders into the same room to discuss how we might collaborate and innovate to tackle our shared issues and help empower students/graduates to find much needed work. Since then, the ‘Creative Campus Network’, as it has become known, has been effective in the two key areas of curriculum development and increasing employability for students and graduates.

Over the summer of 2020, for example, Middlesex University, together with several others, worked with ScreenSkills (the industry representative body) and other key industry stakeholders, to write the ‘Covid-19 Covid Guidelines for Student Productions’, as a resource for lecturers and students alike. These guidelines helped get student productions back up and running when the country was still being affected by lockdown. We followed that up with a Covid-19 student supervisor certified e.Learning programme, on which over 3000 students across 10 universities, were enrolled. That certified training also helped get some students work in the industry upon graduating.

In 2021, I invited several universities, industry employers and ScreenSkills to collaborate again, to write the ‘Work Ready Skills & Experience’ (WYRSE) guidelines on graduate competencies. Published in 2023, these guidelines are  already being adopted within and/or alongside the curriculum of screen industries degree programmes, including my own.

In 2022, the Creative Campus Network was pivotal in building a consortium for a London Mayor’s Creative Skills Academy Hub. Aimed at helping underrepresented young Londoners into the screen industries, the academy, in its first year, has already helped 2153 Londoners gain training or education as a result of Hub activity and offered 1153 Londoners work experience in the film/TV sector and helped 169 Londoners get paid work or paid placements.

As I write, Middlesex University has just completed filming on the UK’s first true co-production between an independent film production company and a university to offer 15 students paid work on a professional film, on roles that are not the ‘normal’ entry level jobs.

Collaboration with industry has also impacted and developed the curriculum on the film degree programme on which I teach. In 2016, we introduced an employability module into the film degree programme. In 2020/21, we partnered directly with MDXWorks, Middlesex University’s employability team, to support the teaching.

The results were immediate, with grade increases and a significant increase in student engagement with MDXWorks. For the last three years, we have been using microcredits and digital badging to support student choice, increase awareness of career options and empower students to take control of their own career paths. And, in October 2023, we launch our newly validated degree programme that has an ‘industry, employment and collaboration’ module running across all three year groups and is unapologetically industry-focused.”

Further reading