Setting up the region for a prosperous future

April 1, 2021

A year after colleges and universities shifted almost overnight to teaching online, Newcastle College University Centre’s vice-principal Jon Ridley reflects on how the pandemic has led to digital innovation, new employer partnerships and sharpened focus on skills-based education.

Looking back over the past 12 months, we can be incredibly proud of how we have addressed with resilient optimism the challenges presented to teaching and learning by COVID-19.

We have faced huge policy changes and political events that will potentially have huge impacts on both the education sector and our economy, although the pandemic and its effects remain the standout event.

It would be wrong to remember our response as simply surviving these events, and we should instead reflect on how we have thrived, innovated and evolved at Newcastle College University Centre.

First and foremost, we have continued to support our students while our campuses have been closed, ensured their wellbeing has been our top priority and harnessed the power of technology to move quickly to an almost completely online offer.

The majority of our courses, from entry level through to Higher Technical qualifications and degrees, are very vocational – something that has taken a lot of collaborative working and innovative thinking to recreate online.

By offering alternative work placements (such as in our mass testing centre on campus), and adapting assessment to recognise, for example, our healthcare students fantastic contribution in supporting the response to COVID-19, we’ve helped students continue to succeed through unique circumstances.

Support and success are at the heart of everything we do, especially at a time when young people (and adults, but young people have been disproportionately affected) are graduating into an uncertain economy where employment opportunities are not guaranteed.

Our vision is to develop the skills and talents of our students to succeed in modern enterprise and make a positive contribution to the prosperity of the North East.

We work to ensure that our students graduate ready to hit the ground running. Ready to invest their talent and create jobs in the region, as they contribute to a vibrant community we all benefit from.

That’s just one of the reasons we launched the Stay and Succeed programme in 2019.

Stay and Succeed is a unique internship project funded by the Office for Students, and aims to ensure our graduates can access higher-level employment here in our region and contribute to our economy.

It also means that local employers can recruit highly-skilled digital technology and engineering graduates, along with a £10,000 salary contribution from Newcastle College University Centre.

To ensure that graduate pool really is highly- skilled and talented, we develop innovative and industry-endorsed qualifications. Our provision is co-created in collaboration with employers, to make sure the skills and experiences of our graduates meet the needs of industry.

That is something that hasn’t been slowed down by the pandemic and we’ve continued to forge new partnerships to develop and launch new courses designed to address the needs of our region over the past 12 months.

In January, we welcomed our first cohort on to a brand-new Level 5 Web Applications Development diploma, developed in partnership with the Code Institute. It ticks all of the boxes that the region is looking for from a Higher Technical Qualification.

It is employer led (a result of a collaboration between experts, industry leaders and education providers) and creates skilled graduates at the level that businesses are most in need of.

Importantly, it accelerates the development of higher-level digital skills in under a year, something that is crucial for those looking to progress to employment and for employers across our region who need digitally skilled talent to help recover, rebuild and grow their business in the months and years ahead.

At a time when many businesses and sectors are struggling, it is the digital sector and those who have been able to diversify and adapt to digital that are thriving.

Unsurprisingly, the tech sector has continued to grow rapidly and with 90,000 unfilled jobs created every week, it makes perfect sense that we continue to launch courses with a strong digital focus.

The diploma is just one of many exciting digital degree level courses that we have launched over the past couple of years.

Last year we launched our Foundation Degree in Engineering with Applied Digital Technology, which was specifically tailored to meet the needs of the engineering and manufacturing industry transitioning to a digital economy.

Before that, we launched a Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeship, which is an accelerated programme that produces fully qualified talent in just two years, rather than the traditional three, and allows employers to really choose which digital paths are going to be most beneficial to them and their business.

We set out last year to become the best STEM provider in the country, but that ambition is clearly based on the needs of our region and the businesses in our community, as all of our offer is.

Last year, the announcement of the ‘Build Back Greener’ plan put a focus on energy and skills for the energy sector, which is something we’ve been leading in across the North East for a number of years.

Even earlier than that, the North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s Digital for Growth Strategy set out a vision to grow the region’s digital sector and increase the digital capabilities of other industry to close the region’s ‘digital skills gap’ by 2024.

Our role is to recognise and anticipate the needs of our region and work with businesses and industry leaders to collaborate and co-create the programmes and the routes into employment, so that our region benefits from a highly skilled talent pool to fill those jobs.

We do that by forging partnerships such as our Digital Advisory Board (made up of Accenture, Bede Gaming, DXC, Waterstons, Virgin Money, Plan Digital and NBS), who help us to constantly evaluate our offer and our role here in the North East.

We consider ourselves to be at the heart of our region and being part of a national college group like NCG only strengthens this.

By working in close partnership with employers and local industry to create the region’s workforce of the future, we can develop and offer education and skills training across all levels of post-16 education that leads to real employment opportunities for our learners and makes a strong local economic impact and sets up our region for a prosperous future.