There’s a quiet revolution going on at Newcastle College

January 5, 2021

More than ever, Newcastle College is looking at how it can adapt and evolve delivery of its programmes to meet the needs of industry and position students for the jobs of the future. Investing in new equipment and strengthening relationships with North East employers is a key part of that, and, as director of industrial strategy Andrew Esson tells Richard Dawson, is driving the college towards its goal of becoming the STEM provider of choice nationally.

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In March last year, when the first wave of coronavirus washed up on UK shores, Newcastle College was quietly working on a five-year vision to become the best STEM provider at all educational levels in the UK.

It’s what the college’s director of industrial strategy Andrew Esson calls “our big hairy audacious goal”.

To achieve its aims, Newcastle College is investing heavily in its energy, engineering and digital technology departments, with new equipment and facilities already coming on stream despite COVID-19.

A 5-axis CNC vertical milling machine has been purchased – the largest machine of its type in an educational setting in the UK.

Furthermore, around £470,000 has been made available over the current and previous academic years to buy a bank of pneumatic training rigs for the Energy Academy in Wallsend, and some 3D printers and small robots for the engineering programmes taught at the Rye Hill campus, as Newcastle College gears up to open a new enterprise hub, apprenticeship hub and digital hub in its Rye Hill House building, perhaps as early as the opening months of 2021.

Impressive though these investments are, the key to achieving the goal of becoming the STEM provider of choice nationally is the college’s unique partnerships with many of the North East’s top STEM employers.

Andrew says: “I’d be interested to find another institution in the UK that has as good and as broad a set of employer partnerships as we have.”

On the energy and engineering side, the college works with companies like Royal IHC, ORE Catapult, Port of Blyth and Subsea North East.

On the digital side, it’s got relationships with the likes of Accenture, DXC Technology, Bede Gaming, NBS, Virgin Money and Waterstons.

These relationships help ensure that educational provision at Newcastle College is absolutely tailored to the needs of industry, with Andrew and the team holding regular “curriculum hackathons” during which local STEM businesses get an opportunity to look at all the different modules on the syllabus and pick out ones that would bring the most value.

The college also has advisory boards for its energy and digital technology programmes, which are made up of regional sector leads who regularly feed in their ideas.

Andrew explains: “Typically, when we launch a new qualification, we bring together employers and an assessment panel for a validation meeting, which is then re-evaluated every three years.

“However, recognising that something like digital technologies moves very quickly, what the Digital Advisory Board allows us to do is meet three or four times per year so we can constantly review and evolve delivery.”

One of the big evolutions to come out of recent conversations is a response to the growing need for educational programmes that combine engineering with digital skills.

“There is an emerging need for new skills to enable businesses to deploy the concepts of Industry 4.0,” Andrew says.

The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution is a fairly new concept based on the growing digitalisation of modern industry.

It follows the first industrial revolution based on steam power, the second based on mechanisation and the third based on mass production.

“What people refer to when they talk about Industry 4.0 is things like augmented reality, artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, 3D printing and all of these emerging technologies,” Andrews adds.

For many manufacturing businesses, particularly SMEs, a lack of knowledge about these technologies has become a real barrier to taking advantage of the opportunities with Industry 4.0.

That’s why Newcastle College has launched a new foundation degree in engineering and applied digital technologies, to fill a growing skills gap in the labour market.

Andrew says: “We’re giving the employer someone who has got the core skills to be an engineer but bringing with them that awareness of digital and how to apply it.

“We’re sowing the seeds of a future generation of digitally-enabled engineers.”

The new FdEng took its first cohort in September 2020 and Andrew and the team are aiming to grow the total number of learners across energy, engineering and digital technology from 1200 per year to 1700 per year over five years.

It’s another big hairy audacious goal and one which will see Newcastle College open a new enterprise hub, apprenticeship hub and digital hub in its Rye Hill House building, perhaps as early as the opening months of 2021.

The hubs will create more and better environments for students to become more entrepreneurial and better prepared to enter the workforce.

The digital hub is going to combine a commercial training facility, an applied digital technology studio and a cybersecurity area.

“If we get it right, the buzz around Rye Hill House is going to be absolutely brilliant,” says Andrew.

This is just a flavour of the great things that are happening at Newcastle College, where Andrew says there is a quiet revolution taking place.

The team are keenly aware of the challenges presented by COVID-19 but are not content to sit back and wait for the recovery.

By investing now and having conversations with employers, Newcastle College wants to play an active role in reskilling and upskilling people as they move into the future.

Andrew adds: “We’ve spent the best part of three years having those conversations with employers and that’s enabled us to hit the ground running with our future planning and help the region recover from the pandemic.”

Newcastle College
Newcastle College’s origins date back more than 120 years to 1894 when Rutherford Memorial College was established at Rye Hill. Over the years, the college has grown and expanded to four specialist satellite sites across Newcastle, Gateshead and North Tyneside.

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