New Approaches to HE: partnerships and innovation

Helen Higson, Aston University
Lynette Ryals, Cranfield University

October 2020

CILE conference

At this time of uncertainty, change and distance it was exciting to spend a day, thinking positively about how we are still managing to deliver high quality, innovative learning across the HE sector, and to identify plans to build on this for the future. Such was our experience of the national conference held on 22nd September 2020, run by Aston and Cranfield Universities. The event was held to reflect on and disseminate the findings of our Centre for Innovation in Learning and Education (CILE), funded by the Office for Students (OfS), and focussed on four main themes emerging from our collaboration. These were implications for employers, students, staff and technology in developing the curriculum of the future to meet the requirements of all stakeholders. Each themed session gave examples of the work of Cranfield and Aston, contextualised via the perspectives of an employer or another university. These sessions were amplified by two contrasting, but equally thought-provoking, keynote speeches from Rachel Wolf, Policy Advisor and Founding Partner of Public First; and Lord Jim Knight, Chief Education Advisor of TES Global and former UK Schools Minister.

Employers: the importance of partnership for the future of HE

In our first keynote, Rachel Wolf explored the government’s focus on research, innovation, and commercialisation as engines of economic growth and how it looks towards the higher education sector to drive innovation as well as skills development. We learnt that skills shortages and upskilling needs in the UK workforce drive the government’s growing interest in applied learning. Building on these insights, our first theme explored the relationship between universities and employers, showing that collaboration produces benefits for employers, universities and for students.

Employers look to universities for a talent pipeline, for research, and to drive innovation; Santander cited examples of student projects and doctoral research stimulating valuable innovation within the bank.

Universities look to businesses to provide learning opportunities. Placements – whether in the form of student projects (Cranfield) or one-year placements (Aston) – play a powerful role in transforming students personally as well as enhancing their employability skills. Even more striking, both Aston and Cranfield find that applied experience can lead to better academic performance once students return to their studies.

All this reveals that we should not focus exclusively on academic and technical skills to the exclusion of broader employability. Our consultations with dozens of businesses found that universities must produce graduates who meet their requirements in terms of both “hard” discipline-specific technical skills and “soft” skills such as emotional intelligence, team working and commercial understanding.

The conference heard calls to embed these broader skills into the curriculum, making students work-ready and meeting employer needs.

Students: meeting the needs of the future HE student

Our second theme revealed the importance of investing in support mechanisms for student transitions – from school into a degree or from work into a degree apprenticeship – that begin well before the student arrives and continue throughout their studies. The extent to which students are expected to learn independently, in particular, can come as a shock, so support mechanisms such as Aston’s peer mentoring and international buddy scheme provide good examples of successful innovative practices that support students through their transition period.

Different types of support mechanisms are needed for more mature apprenticeship students, for example, those studying at level 7. These students can bring extensive business experience, frequently hold senior roles, may have a family as well as business commitments to balance with their studies, and they may have been outside formal education for some years. Cranfield shared their transition support which focuses on coaching and peer review. One innovative example, highly valued by students, is ‘Getting Ready Day’ to prepare each student for their End Point Assessment.

A particular challenge for universities is managing the transition of students, with differing levels of skills and experience, into a variety of technical courses. Using a creative combination of small-group teaching, peer mentoring, industry-led experiences, and soft skills workshops to ease the transition into study and then into work, such as those within the computer science education programmes at Queen’s, provided insightful examples to support transitions specific to this field of study.

Staff: recruiting and developing staff for the future of HE

Our second keynote from Lord Jim Knight challenged us about whether universities are truly equipping young people for the employment market, pointing out that employers are increasingly wanting to grow their own talent. He asked how the UK could secure the same parity of esteem as e.g. Germany between theoretical and applied learning.

If high quality teaching and innovation is central to producing the graduates of the future, then workforce planning is crucial. The conference heard about widening the net to attract different kinds of staff, such as Cranfield’s strategy to create a flexible workforce. This requires creative thinking about how to attract the best people and develop their skills to meet the demands of stakeholders. Aston’s scaffold learning approach for staff, mapped against the UK Professional Standards Framework, also highlighted the importance of providing staff (new entrants and experienced) with the tools to be transformational in their work. Another creative approach to provide staff with the experience they need was the example shared by Wolverhampton University that involves staff experiencing some of the student workshops.

Technology: supporting the future of HE

The final theme, EdTech, saw a common thread emerging from discussions that the Covid-19 pandemic had made both universities and businesses reconsider our normal working practices and how we provide learning experiences. Aston put forward a powerful argument that universities should take the opportunity to re-think, not just to translate content to the online environment.

Agility and responsiveness were key lessons in this theme, such as Cranfield’s eclectic and pragmatic delivery approach for executive education which has led to a platform-independent philosophy to cope with a range of client technologies and to address the needs of clients and of faculty. Cranfield also shared experience of adopting on-screen formats to show faculty members with their slides in the background after recognising the importance of body language in the learning experience. It also shared thoughts that a suitably lit traditional whiteboard can work better for online delivery than some of the high-tech solutions.

The impact of Covid-19 on crystallising existing/developing working habits was echoed by Microsoft, emphasising the importance of securing time out such as taking ‘scheduled dog walks’. Agility and responsiveness were also referred to in the context of insightful examples of ‘using less PowerPoint and listening more’ as essential responses to the pandemic and an indicator of future good practice.

What this means for the future of HE partnerships and innovation

Our conference enabled us to share innovative practice and identify seven key findings that we hope will be useful for all those involved in shaping higher education fit for the future.

These are:

  1. Work in partnership with other providers, with employers, with learners and with policymakers and government. All of us have a responsibility to make sure we are investing in the future of individuals, organisations and society. Particularly at this time of pandemic we need to make sure that we help those who might otherwise be left behind. Higher education has always been about providing opportunity and must continue to do so.
  2. Innovate. We cannot rely on the old ways of doing things and we need to look at different sorts of delivery. Particularly, we need to rethink the relationship between work and study.
  3. Invest in staff, so that they can perform at their maximum, can experiment, take risks, and keep their resilience despite massive change.
  4. Invest and train in technology where it improves learning experience, not forgetting that that low tech solutions (such as Cranfield’s traditional whiteboard on camera) are also effective.
  5. Listen to key stakeholders, employers and learners, recognising that they are all different.
  6. Act as civic leaders. Universities have traditionally been anchor institutions in their region and this role has never been so important.
  7. Work at the relationship even where interests coincide, as with Cranfield and Aston, relationships take work. Use high-level relationship sponsors; bring the teams together regularly; and finally, rather than agonising over differences, recognise and value one another’s strengths.

Helen Higson and Lynette Ryals

Professor Helen Higson, Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Aston University and Professor Lynette Ryals, Chief Executive of MK:U Ltd and Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Cranfield University are co-founders of the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Education (CILE). The joint virtual centre aims to develop new knowledge in innovative education, business-engaged educational design and innovative delivery modes in undergraduate provision within UK Higher Education. Through joint research, the sharing of best practice and the design of innovative education pathways, Aston and Cranfield Universities are supporting the proposed development of a new model STEM-focused university in Milton Keynes.

This blog has been produced for the Centre for Innovation and Learning in Education, a Catalyst OfS funded project. The work of the CILE not only supports educational development within Aston and Cranfield but also feeds into the development of the proposed new model university in Milton Keynes, MK:U.


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