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Engaging employers

Professor Tim Thornton

Professor Tim Thornton

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Huddersfield

Published on October 30, 2017

Although many Alliance universities only became universities in and after 1992, most grew out of institutions with a longer history. For example, the University of Huddersfield became a university in 1992, but its roots lie in the formation of the Young Men’s Mental Improvement Society in 1841, which, after merging with the Women’s Educational Institution, soon became a Mechanics’ Institute. The Institute sought to provide outstanding education to all who might benefit, regardless of origin, and these or similar goals remain core to the mission of all Alliance universities; but our vision has expanded, to incorporate education for the widest range of professions, to address the global demand for high-level skills, and to serve a student body that is truly international.

We require students to extend their learning in real-world situations: at Huddersfield, every single course has an embedded substantial work-related component such as a placement

To achieve this vision, Alliance universities have developed a distinctive form of teaching that draws on our long-standing partnerships with industry.

This involves:

  • Cutting-edge current curricula co-created with students, employers, community groups and service users;
  • Progressive and innovative pedagogies which integrate employer-relevant challenges for learning and assessment, using real world environments and simulations to provide work-based learning opportunities;
  • Supporting individual students to succeed and develop at every stage of their student journey, from their first interaction to graduation and beyond;
  • Enabling our students to engage with our academics and directly with employers in effective and innovative ways.

At Huddersfield, all courses are designed in collaboration with employers, who sit on validation panels which give approval for new and substantially revised courses, and on subject review panels, to ensure that courses remain current and relevant to professional employment. In the Health area, service users and carers also participate in course development through the Public Partnership Group.

Where professional accreditation is available, courses obtain this. At Huddersfield, we work with 43 Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies and across the Alliance over 40% of courses are accredited by professional bodies. This means that our graduates leave with both a degree and a professional qualification. We invest in state-of-the-art equipment so that our graduates will be familiar with the latest equipment when they move into industry or professional practice.

We require students to extend their learning in real-world situations: at Huddersfield, every single course has an embedded substantial work-related component such as a placement. We believe this promotes exceptional engagement because students recognise the relevance and impact of their learning.

For example, the music curriculum offers rigorous opportunities to work in professional circumstances such as in the organisation, technical support, and performance of the internationally renowned Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

Partnership between students, academics and employers at Huddersfield ensures students develop as confident critical independent thinkers, able to work alongside the best in their field. For example, student conferences such as the Finding Voice conference, undertaken by third year Childhood Studies students, sees presenting the application of their own work-based learning and research to real-world contexts, in the company of leading figures in education such as Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the former Children’s Commissioner for England.

Many Alliance universities have used their experience of work-based learning to create higher and degree apprenticeships. We recognise that flexible, work-based routes to skills are hugely important if we are to create the widest possible pool of talent and support social mobility. We see the Degree Apprenticeship agenda as a crucial element of the broader apprenticeship programme and recognise their potential to transform the way professional, technical and higher education is offered in the UK. In particular, they can offer an attractive route to degree level skills (and a highly valued degree award) for a wide range of learners, including those from widening participation backgrounds, older learners already in the workforce and people who would prefer to study part-time. Across University Alliance, we now offer over 120 Higher and Degree Apprenticeships with another 80 in active development.

Our distinctive pedagogy offers a real alternative to more traditional forms of learning within universities. It has come from our heritage as technical institutes, polytechnics and Colleges of Advanced Technology but we have developed our pedagogy so that it fits our students for the modern world where many more professions demand the knowledge, skills and attributes which graduates possess. It is therefore unsurprising that the vast majority of our students go on to work or further study – over 96% at Huddersfield and 94% across the Alliance as a whole.4

Case study: Innovative Creative Exchange at University of Huddersfield

The Innovative Creative Exchange (ICE) at the University of Huddersfield provides a successful structure for embedding interdisciplinary industry collaborations into the undergraduate experience. ICE provides a dynamic and unique environment outside the traditional curriculum for undergraduate students from across seven schools to work on industry-led challenges which cross discipline boundaries.

It introduces disruptive parameters to impact on learning, placing students in a time-controlled environment, challenging students both creatively and technically in a competitive environment, thus developing essential employability skills such as problem-solving, resilience, communication team-working, and project management.

The four-year project was originally funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering visiting professor scheme. However, it has been so successful in networking students across the university that it has continued into a fifth year with a number of industry-led design challenges led by local and global companies. It critically empowers the learner through providing an engagement experience which focuses on knowledge co-creation, building sustainable communities of learning and commercial awareness. It enables students to realise strengths and development using real-world challenges led by the commercial sector.

Case study: Combining Community Service with Clinical Assessment Experience at University of Huddersfield

Every year University of Huddersfield staff and students work in partnership with external clinicians and sector partners to provide an innovative undergraduate clinical skills event, and at the same time promote leg health to the local community.

Members of the public are invited, via local press advertisements, to attend a leg health assessment in the specialist Podiatry Clinic at the university. The holistic assessment incorporates past medical history; assessment of limbs for chronic venous disease and arterial assessment.

The assessment is carried out by podiatry undergraduate students, supported by practising clinicians and university staff. The results of this assessment are communicated to the individual patient, along with any necessary early intervention for identified conditions. This can include lifestyle advice, referral to podiatric care, provision of hosiery, or instructions to visit their GP. Information gained from this assessment and details of intervention is also sent to the GP, following consent from the individual patients and carers.

This genuine interaction with patients enables the student podiatrist to develop assessment skills under supervision and understand appropriate referral pathways for those requiring medical input. The student gains appreciation of the need for, and clinical benefits, of early intervention for venous/lymphatic insufficiency. They also develop confidence in selecting hosiery, as well as building their measurement and fitting skills.

The clinic brings a range of benefits for individual patients and carers. The process of self-referral and subsequent assessment and treatment facilitates empowerment. Individuals feel listened to and supported. Meanwhile the assessments promote self-care, prevents disease progression and potentially the development of further complications, and allows timely specialist referral to be made in those cases requiring prompt review. The leg health assessment days facilitate undergraduate training, the public health agenda and general health promotion and have resulted in positive feedback from staff, patients, carers and students. All the people attending the clinic reported that they felt they had been listened to, adequately assessed and would recommend to others to attend the clinic.

Case study: Learning as a researcher at University of Portsmouth

The University of Portsmouth wanted to use a specific unit to develop transferable skills in students (teamwork, problem-solving and communication skills). However, this was not proving effective. For example, in the teamwork exercises students tended to work alone and pull their efforts together at the end rather than working as a team throughout.

Following work by Professor Sherria Hoskins on complex learning, the university introduced a 20-credit, optional, Level 5 Research Based Learning (RBL) module to sit alongside their study where students apply for research jobs advertised by staff. Roles included delivering and evaluating randomised controls in schools and exploring elderly adults’ spatial visualisation in relation to their ability to use a prototype automated phone service. On average about 50 students a year now take this module and staff are incentivised via a small research bursary for every post they offer and fill. Assessment is through a learning portfolio in which students provide evidence that they have achieved learning outcomes.

Evaluation of the RBL module after its first year revealed that respectful and mutually beneficial relationships developed between staff and students, which contributed to continued research partnerships and transformational learning. Shared staff and student peer-reviewed journal articles have resulted from several projects, demonstrating this to be an authentic research exercise, one that has now been expanded into Level 6. The RBL unit has also been adopted as an elective by the whole university and broadened out to include more than just research experiences.

Chris Thomas, like many students, embraced this research opportunity. He said: “It was probably the best experience I could have received for my career…it’s about creativity, persistence, and patience. These are traits which you cannot express in any other way except through working with your peers.”

Footnotes

4 HESA’s UK Performance Indicators 2015/16: Employment of leavers

This essay has been extracted from our publication, Technical and Professional Excellence: Perspectives on learning and teaching.

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