During these times of uncertainty, traditional roles have altered and new relationships have been forged. The role of UK universities for example, often perceived by business as centres for elite scholarly pursuit, has changed beyond recognition. Increasingly, universities are acknowledged as having a much wider role to play in regional economies than just educating highly qualified young people.
Whilst the University of Wolverhampton has had the needs of business on its radar for some time, in recent years this role has been crystallised in the form of its Innovation and Enterprise Strategy.
Leading this Strategy is Professor Ian Oakes, Pro Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise, whose own experiences at the chalk face in the automotive industry give him a solid understanding of the pressures which impact on business. His aim to position the University as a driver for economic growth within the region is more than a vision; it’s grounded in the realities facing the region.
One such reality is the on-going drive to inject more higher level skills into the region’s workforce, which remains a priority. The region has considerable ground to make up, as Ian explains:
"If you look at the metrics by which respective regions across the country are measured in terms of their competitiveness, then the West Midlands is not faring very well. When you start to dig down beyond the headline factors, such as the output gap and productivity etc, many of the factors associated with competitiveness are related to the lack of high level skills in the workplace.
"Here in the Black Country, we have fewer employees in companies with graduate level skills, and a lower percentage of the population have graduate level skills, so the University’s focus on innovation and enterprise is aiming to upskill workforces in the Black Country and the broader region."
However, many companies face a dilemma. Whilst they appreciate the benefits of investing in employee skills, accommodating periods in education for employees can be difficult, but Ian is clear about the need for companies to act:
"As it becomes increasingly difficult for companies to compete with overseas low-cost economies it becomes vitally important for them to maintain competitive advantage and many businesses are now looking to the intellectual capital they have within their organisation. The University has a major role to play in helping them to do this."
This role has resulted in a flexible delivery mechanism for many of the University’s courses, which wrap learning around workplace problems and place this learning into an accredited framework. Courses are designed to be more easily absorbed into work routines, including bite-sized chunks of learning which can be studied in the workplace or out of normal working hours.
The manufacturing sector in the UK has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. As a region which has relied heavily on industry and manufacturing, the West Midlands has been seriously challenged by lower cost overseas economies. As many regional businesses struggle for survival, Ian believes that innovation is a key factor in stimulating recovery:
"Companies need to develop new products, new processes and engage in new markets in order to improve their competitiveness. Retaining viable companies in the region is crucial.
"Not only can the University of Wolverhampton help businesses to identify new markets which can make use of their expertise, it can also identify the sort of skills and knowledge they require to enter those new markets. Companies can work with us on short consultancy projects, become part of our highly successful Knowledge Transfer Partnerships programme, or get involved in on-going research projects. They can gain product support through the Caparo Innovation Centre or join one of our networks and meet other businesses from a similar sector."
The University has a strong track record in assisting companies who wish to diversify or innovate. The Green Roof Tile Company, based in the Midlands, is one such company. They approached the award-winning Caparo Innovation Centre, a collaborative venture between the University of Wolverhampton and Caparo plc, which provides new product development services to inventors and businesses.
Together, they were able to explore product viability for an innovative, environmentally friendly domestic roof tile system. The University developed conceptualised CAD drawings from initial company sketches of the roof tile and system accessories, followed by the production of laser sintered prototype tiles and parts, which were tested and evaluated by The Green Roof Tile Company. The University also helped produce marketing collateral, an Installation Guide and the Technical Specification for the EnviroTile range in preparation for its launch.
Based at Wolverhampton Science Park, Caparo Innovation Centre has helped more than 800 inventors assess the viability of their ideas as well as taking a number of different inventions through to market. It is staffed by a team of product and business development professionals covering a range of engineering, marketing, design and business skills.
More exciting opportunities for the world of work and education to do business were announced as part of the Innovation and Enterprise Strategy’s latest wave of activity. Ian is keen to "unlock" more of the knowledge that resides in the University for the benefit of businesses, in particular its research expertise.
The potential for businesses to utilise the research which is being undertaken by universities is, Ian believes, a missed opportunity. Wolverhampton has taken a step closer to making its research available with two Visualisation Centres, which will become operational later this year.
"This is something we’re working on, and I’m pleased to report we’ve received substantial funding to develop two Visualisation Centres; one in Wolverhampton and another on our Telford Campus. The Visualisation Centres will provide us with an opportunity to really demonstrate to businesses all the latest developments that our research activities are now generating. Businesses will be able to come into what will be a very creative space. By using advanced ICT technologies they can see how our research capabilities can actually help their businesses by focusing on key themes and key sectors."
The loss of skilled graduates is another pressing issue which continues to have an influence on the prosperity of the region, as Ian explains:
"We’re a net exporter of graduates, so we’re losing more graduates from the region than we are retaining. Therefore, the University is seeking ways to keep its talented graduates in the region. This will involve assisting more of them in starting their own businesses here in Wolverhampton."
Progressive universities like Wolverhampton are aware of their ongoing responsibility to their graduates and the region. Through its new Graduate Incubation Programme, the University of Wolverhampton will be able to honour both commitments:
"Whilst the University has a tremendous track record of working with our undergraduates to help them develop their business ideas, what we haven’t seen to date is sufficient numbers of our own graduates moving through into our excellent incubator facilities and starting their own businesses in the region.
"The University of Wolverhampton intends to establish a Graduate Incubation Programme, which will help them to start up their own businesses here in Wolverhampton, create more jobs for the people of Wolverhampton and the Black Country and again, generate economic growth."
Whether a graduate of the University or not, incubation facilities at Telford’s e-Innovation Centre and Wolverhampton Science Park are designed to assist new-start businesses through their early growth stages.
Ian believes that the wealth of knowledge, facilities and expertise that UK universities can offer the business community shouldn’t remain a well-kept secret. Wolverhampton’s capacity to work with businesses is well-established, having supported over 5,000 companies over the last 10 years. Ian has realised plans which have made the University’s services more accessible than ever.
"A priority has been to provide a very simple channel to market through the Wolverhampton Business Solutions Centre. The Centre provides a highly visible point of contact located on our Wolverhampton Science Park. Having that resource provides businesses with a very easily accessible way to identify the appropriate help, expertise and guidance they need to address their particular problem."
The Centre enables companies seeking business growth and improvement services to draw upon the expertise of the University, the Black Country Chamber of Commerce, City of Wolverhampton College, Business Link West Midlands and Wolverhampton City Council.
Since its launch last year, it’s provided advice and business services to over 1,000 enquirers.
So, the next time your business takes you past the doors of your local university, don’t suppose it to be the preserve of intellectuals and academics. Thanks to a dynamic innovation and enterprise focus, Wolverhampton’s doors are certainly open for business.