Nick Peters reports on the new Engineering and Digital Technology Park due to be built on the Bognor Regis campus of the University of Chichester.
Individual employers sometimes go above and beyond in order to create the manufacturing workforce of the future. And when the stars align, great things can result. Henry Powell runs Inpress Plastics in Littlehampton, West Sussex.
The company makes a wide range of blow and injection moulded products for sectors that include medical devices through to sports and leisure, and homes and gardens.
- Government warned over cost of apprenticeships
- Unipart boss issues industrial skills call to arms
- Industry report urges greater gender diversity
Despite living 35 miles away in Surrey, he is often to be found in the evenings and at weekends on the campus of The Littlehampton Academy, where he sits on the academy council.
“I decided that if I was expecting the local secondary school to turn out my future employees, then I’d better get in there to help,” he said. “And this is where the children of my employees go to school. I owe them my attention to what goes on there.”
Henry also joined in enthusiastically when he heard of an ambitious new project being developed by the University of Chichester, an Engineering and Digital Technology Park to be built on the Bognor Regis campus just six miles from Littlehampton.
It is the brainchild of university vice-chancellor Clive Behagg who worked with the Coast-to- Capital Local Economic Partnership (LEP) to win government backing for the project.
Inpress Plastics joined with Rolls-Royce Motorcars (whose factory is in nearby Chichester, but which has built a technology and logistics centre in Bognor), Sony, Toshiba Medical and Solartron and the URT Group to provide industry support.
“The new facility will open in 2018,” Professor Behagg said, “and will provide 500 undergraduate and postgraduate places. We are also working with four further education colleges in the area to give their sixth form students thorough Level 3 training.”
The £11m funding came partly from the government’s Higher Education Catalyst Fund, from the county council and in kind from the business partners, but the bulk, £8m, came from what is now BEIS, an intriguing example of the government’s business department supporting an educational initiative.
“It’s not just a building,” Clive Behagg said. “We will be running outreac programmes into all local schools from primary level to sixth form, to encourage STEM education and careers in education. We have a large number of high-value engineering firms in the Bognor area and it frustrates them that they have difficulty hiring skilled employees, which is why we thought there was such a good case for creating this new development.
“Essentially, we believe we are creating a new paradigm in the way universities work with businesses. We are a small university, so it makes total sense for us to work with SMEs to help them develop the employees they need.”
The building will be fully kitted out in accordance with the CDIO principle of technical education, which stands for ‘Conceiving, Designing, Implementing, Operating’ – real-world systems and products, making Chichester one of only seven UK universities to use this radical hands-on technique, developed by MIT in Boston.
“Walking into the building will be like switching on the Discovery Channel!” Professor Behagg said, with justifiable pride.
The Engineering and Digital Technology Park is just one example of collaborations between business and education across the country. There are too many to mention individually. But individual efforts like this, no matter how innovative and inspiring, can only achieve maximum impact when there is a clear, overarching strategy from the centre. That battle remains to be won.