The pandemic has acted like a rocket booster for digital innovation, such has been the forced pace of change over the past year. Assuredly, today’s students are looking to a future that is different to the one that lay ahead of them just 12 months ago. By HELEN COMPSON.
In the words of Stefanie Thorne, director of business engagement and entrepreneurship at the University of Suffolk: “So much has changed that business can’t and won’t be the same again.
“Now, we can only innovate and look to the future.”
With overarching responsibility for the university’s collaboration with the business community at large, Stefanie’s remit is wide-ranging.
It includes the management of the Ipswich Waterfront Innovation Centre, a business start-up incubation hub launched in 2016, and the 3D Productivity Suite under the same roof.
While the latter usually supports the use of industry-standard 3D printing for prototyping and testing product design, during the pandemic its focus has switched to production of visors for healthcare professionals working on the frontline.
She also has responsibility for the careers team that nurtures both the aspirations of students and the good will of employers willing to chip their knowledge and skills into the mix. “We work hard to connect what we teach with the practitioners working in the field,” she said. “That not only brings skills in, but highlights and produces opportunities for students going forward.”
Practical and very grounded, Stefanie and her team help provide the solid foundations upon which apprenticeships, business start-ups and, indeed, the ongoing employability of alumni in later life are built.
Apprenticeships are key to what she does and there are around 500 apprentices at the university, looked after by a core team of five staff. “A recent Government announcement, made in a White Paper, states that apprenticeships are seen as key to recovery,” she said.
“Here at the university, we have a part to play in supporting apprenticeships in the East, developing the local workforce, particularly but not exclusively, in the health sector.
“We also develop entrepreneurial skills, supporting students interested in setting up a business – a games hub is one example. We teach students how to create learning and gaming programmes and there’s been some real success in the past couple of years, with students winning competitions and commercialising their games.
“And we support our alumni and their lifelong partnership with the university. It is important we provide support in later life around employability and for them to continue to engage with our strengths and academic offer.”
Business entrepreneurship and business engagement at the university come under the banner of ‘knowledge exchange’, in recognition of the fact it is very much a two-way street. The university is as determined to make an impact on local, regional and national communities as it is to bring the real-world experience of business entrepreneurs onto campus for the benefit of students.
The university is a big business in its own right, of course, and as such it too had to adapt swiftly to the rigours of Covid. It moved its teaching programme online within one week of going into the first lockdown.
“The way we all do business is changing enormously,” said Stefanie. “The speed of innovation is evident in the current vaccination programme and the work that has been done on addressing the pandemic.
“People have had to do things innovatively, using digital technology in a manner they might not have thought they were capable of previously.
“Moving away from face-to-face business meetings and doing it all online has been a learning curve, but that has enhanced the ability to have a broader reach. At the university, we now have people joining our business breakfasts from Scotland. That wouldn’t have happened before the pandemic.”
People who were previously excluded from events, perhaps because of time or geographic constraints, could now engage, joining online meetings with much greater ease.
Society did need face-to-face meetings to begin again, the better to foster the relationships that helped businesses thrive, but there was no doubt about it, digital networking was here to stay.
She said: “Recent experiences have made people recognise that digital innovation provides the solutions we need going forward – it will be part of the recovery for the whole country.
“Some things will have gone from offices now, such as physical paperwork, and we won’t return to the simple provision of events. We will be looking instead at how to maintain a broader reach into our local communities and beyond.”
It was more important than ever that colleges of further education, universities and employers collaborated in building skillsets and maximising employment opportunities, particularly for those in the low-skill base she felt would be hit hardest by the pandemic. Effective partnership was a must.
Would-be employees also needed to appreciate the value of ‘soft skills’ – the outside interests, the great attitude, the confidence and the flexibility – that complemented any CV. They could make themselves valuable employees with the right approach to a job.
Stefanie said: “I don’t think we can underestimate how challenging the labour market is going to be in the next couple of years. Like everyone else, students have had to learn to change and adapt and be more flexible during the pandemic, but that can only be to the good.
“There will be a point at which we look back and see how far we’ve come and what we have learned from this past year.
“It will need reviewing though: what has worked well, what have we learned and what has reached more people further afield?”