Teesside’s anchor for skills 

February 2, 2017

Professor Jane Turner talks to Alison Cowie about how much an unorthodox study path and diverse career brought her to a pro-chancellor role at Teesside University, where she helps forge strategic relationships between the university and enterprise to balance supply and demand for skills and jobs in the Tees Valley and beyond

According to Professor Jane Turner, the relationship between business and higher education has always been important. But with the increase in tuition fees and the average three-year university education now costing £26,000, the association has moved further into the spotlight as students (and their parents, who often foot at least part of the bill) are asking providers whether the investment will result in a graduate-level job.

Teesside – alongside many other post-1992 universities – has always been considered more of a practice-based educational institution with many of its courses providing a strong vocational focus. As such, its relationship with businesses has been pivotal and in 2014 it was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for work at world-class level in the field of enterprise and business engagement, while the then business secretary described Teesside as “one of the best universities for business in Britain”.

For Jane, who grew up in Guisborough after her family moved there from the north of the region when she was three, her own further and higher education didn’t follow the usual path.

From sixth form, she worked in a bank – an experience she describes as “the wrong choice” – and it wasn’t until she was a mother in her early twenties that she decided to enter further education.

Inspired by her entrepreneurial father, who established a manufacturing business when she was ten years old, Jane enrolled on a part-time HND in business and finance at Gateshead College.

She expands: “As a child, I spent my school holidays, evenings and weekends at my dad’s company and so got an insight into business decisions, finance, people and recruitment from a very young age. I learnt the trials and tribulations of running a small business.

“This really helped when I started studying because I could question the theory and relate it to real-life business situations.”

Studying, Jane explains, soon got under her skin and she went on to take a degree in business studies at Sunderland University where, again, she drew on knowledge gleaned from her father.

Jane followed this by completing a masters degree in human resource management at Northumbria University, while she lectured in the evening. She also spent time working with Teesside women from deprived backgrounds on their personal development and self-advocacy.

Jane joined Orange in 2000 as a leadership specialist where she ran the internal leadership and management development programmes.

Three years later, she joined Benfield Motor Group as head of HR and people and organisational development at the North East family-run motor retailer.

Although she maintains it was unconscious, Jane has managed to carve out an impressively diverse CV that spans public sector, SME, corporate and third sector roles.

“I didn’t set out thinking I must tick off these different sectors, I just wanted to experience as much as I could in business,” she says.

In 2005, Jane saw a job advertised at Northumbria University where she felt she could use all of her acquired experience.

After successfully applying to become an associate dean in executive development, Jane set about establishing the executive arm of Newcastle Business School, eventually growing it to a team of 28.

Alongside this, she gained her professional doctorate in business leadership and was appointed a professor of enterprise while at the university.

Ten years later, in November 2015, Jane was enticed south of the region to her current role at Teesside University, which she describes as her “dream job”.

As pro vice-chancellor, Jane is responsible for knowledge exchange activities and an income stream associated with that, the forging of strategic relationships between the university and business, the employability of graduates, start -ups and addressing the balance of supply and demand for skills and jobs in the Tees Valley and beyond.

Jane is keen to build strategic partnerships with businesses regionally, nationally and internationally and of all sizes. Accordingly, she has worked to simplify the collaboration process to open opportunities up to SMEs as well as corporates.

She explains: “Universities are often criticised for being difficult to navigate and so we’ve created our own sub-brand, The Forge, which provides a single point of contact to guide businesses through the engagement process, enabling them to get access to our expertise in research, consultancy, workforce development, high and degree apprentices and our impressive student and graduate talent.

In addition, we have dedicated business and innovation managers who are constantly engaging with businesses to develop trusted and mutually beneficial relationships.

By promoting links with businesses, the university allows its students to benefit from work placements throughout their studies, the ability to put their learning into practice and a greater chance of securing a graduate level job on graduation. Businesses benefit by getting access to undergraduate and graduate talent and university research, as well as gaining the ability to shape courses that address the skills they need.

Further bolstering the jobs opportunities for students, Teesside University has also recently entered into a partnership with employment agency Reed Recruitment.

“Our careers services will work with Reed for the next 18 months to support the personal and professional development of our students and provide access to graduate level job opportunities,” says Jane.

Jane and the university have also focused on identifying sectors of high-growth jobs and creating programmes that fill skill gaps in these areas.

Given that two thirds of its students remain in the region, Teesside University works closely with the Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA), and aligns its activity to the authority’s Strategic Economic Plan. The plan identifies high growth potential in key sectors such as chemicals, health innovation, energy and advanced manufacturing, as well as logistics, digital and creative, culture and leisure, and business and professional services.

Jane continues to ask staff from the university’s five schools to analyse the areas of growth in their particular sector and to shape learning to maximise the employability of students.

We are the only university [in the Tees Valley], so our staff have a responsibility to understand the economic landscape, know where the growth areas are and actively align our provision to these priorities.

Longer term, the relationship between Teesside University and business is only set to grow as demand for graduate-level jobs from students and for skilled talent from employers increases.

The university has recently re-located all of its professional and executive development programmes to the re-named Centre for Professional and Executive Development (CPED) at its Darlington campus. All schools will deliver short courses from the facility and the School of Health and Social Care, with its enviable reputation in workforce development, is benefitting from investment in new kit and equipment at the new site.

Adding to the university’s facilities, next year will see the building of the Darlington-based National Horizons Centre (NHC).

Located next to the CPED on Central Park Darlington, NHC will become a centre for excellence in the bio-industries and, led by the university, will harness the potential of biologics and industrial biotechnology, underpinned by digital, to deliver new and leading-edge programmes. It will also complement the existing UK’s National

Biologics Manufacturing Centre (NBMC), which was opened by the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) in 2015, located nearby.

The university has also developed several higher and degree apprenticeships where students gain in-work experience while businesses can directly influence the curriculums. Courses in management, web engineering, electronic engineering and healthcare are already available, with more planned once the Apprenticeship Levy comes into force in April, with the promise of more funding for SMEs to access talent.

In addition, Jane and her team are working with the TVCA and the Enterprise Research Centre to identify and build ties with the most promising scale-up companies in the Tees Valley. This work is inspired by the 2014 Scale-Up Report in UK Economic Growth by Sherry Coutu, which states that by closing the scale-up gap, the UK could gain 150,000 net jobs and £225 billion additional GVA in the UK by 2034.

Jane adds: “I see the university as being the convener to identify those scale-ups in the region and give them dedicated support and guidance over a sustained period to help them fulfil their potential and create potential jobs for our students.

In addition, this approach provides an opportunity to undertake rich research into scalable businesses.”

KPIs for Jane this year remain delivering an income stream of more than £18 million to the university through knowledge transfer, collaboration, research and growing strategic partnerships.

“In ensuring laser focus upon all of these areas of activity way, the university becomes an ‘anchor institution’ for the region, which is what universities should be,” says Jane.

“The Tees Valley often struggles in terms of regional economic rankings and if we don’t address the skills gaps, productivity will continue to wain as talent and inward investment goes elsewhere.”

She concludes with a characteristic note of positivity: “I do think the recently launched Industrial Strategy, Northern Powerhouse strategy and our devolution deal have created a golden opportunity to disrupt and change our trajectory and the university will be key to that journey.”

Teesside University

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