HEA Starter Tools

Business engagement for learning

What is business engagement for learning?

Business engagement for learning is a term that refers to diverse means of engagement with businesses and prospective employers, in order to enhance student and graduate employability.

Where did the concept of business engagement for learning come from?

A growing emphasis on business engagement for learning can be traced back to the late 1970s with a state-led restructure of the UK education system encouraged industry and universities to work more closely. The rapid expansion of the higher education (HE) sector, and marketisation are two key macro-processes increasing the demand for business engagement for learning. Universities are understood to be part of the supply chain that is multi-dimensional and complex and represents a range of ‘domains for activity’ that include:

"the education of highly skilled graduates, applied research in advanced technologies, bespoke collaborative degree programmes, ‘science’ park developments, enterprise education, support for entrepreneurs, industry sector foundation degrees, higher level apprenticeships, collaborative research, in company upskilling of employees". (Wilson 2012, p. 2)

In order to gain world leadership in university business collaboration, all of these ‘domains’ must be excellent as “the strength of the supply chain is defined by its weakest link and policy must support this to ensure investments in one domain are not ‘diluted by underperformance in others” (Wilson 2012, p. 2). Equally, however, each institution’s specialisms and expertise will differ and offer alternative routes for engagement and opportunities and expertise for supporting businesses (Wilson 2012, p. 21).

The concept of ‘business engagement for learning’ is driven by the employability agenda and a widely recognised need for the sustainability of HE and economic prosperity that requires up-skilling of the workforce of the future (Sterling 2012; CFE 2014). In terms of businesses and employers, employability skills are a priority for 74% of businesses surveyed by CBI (2009); with a further 54% stating they wanted universities to provide relevant work experience and/or industrial placements. Universities have an important role in helping students to understand the range of opportunities that are available to them, particularly in small to medium enterprises and the area of regional development and to foster economic growth through partnership with government agencies and local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) (Wilson 2012, p. 21).

How does business engagement for learning work?

Dynamic and interactive, world-leading business-university collaboration can, according to Wilson (2012, p. 21), ensure the design and delivery of relevant programmes for current and future business needs, providing opportunities for students and graduates to engage in meaningful placements and work experience and matching graduate skills to business needs. Likewise, such collaboration should involve businesses seeing HE as a source of expertise for effectively and efficiently updating employee skills; with the university sector representing “a diverse set of institutions, each with its own portfolio of business support capabilities, leading to an optimal matching of business need with university strength” (Wilson, 2012, p 21). Finally, business engagement for learning also provides the basis for sustaining world-class research and a constant exchange of ideas, skills and people, including co-identifying and collaboratively developing and resourcing areas of future knowledge and capabilities (Wilson 2012, p. 21; Banim and Evan 2008). The collaborative engagement generates mutual benefit with all parties learning and gaining from each other (National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement 2009).

Examples of business engagement for learning  include;

  • professional placements opportunities;
  • graduate recruitment fairs and events;
  • employer (mock) interviews;
  • business plan and/or enterprise challenge competitions;
  • informing programme design, delivery and assessment.
  • Live projects
  • Mentoring opportunities

Employer/business involvement in course design, delivery and, sometimes, assessment and feedback can bring benefits and also challenges for both practitioner and learners. Business engagement for learning is concerned with providing authentic, experiential learning experiences for students. Essentially, for teaching and learning, business engagement means using exciting and innovative pedagogies, employing action learning, problem/enquiry/research-based learning, and/or simulation-based learning. It can also involve businesses delivering some of the teaching, for instance, by sharing knowledge and experience in workshops and lectures (CBI 2009, p. 7). Business engagement for learning can also influence the development of learning resources; one example being where the NHS shares anonymised data to universities to initiate new areas of research (DOH 2010).


Where is business engagement for learning currently being used and how?

An effective example of a successful innovation using business engagement for learning is the ‘GoGreen 12;12;12’ initiative at Anglia Ruskin University and led by Dr. Beatriz Acevedo. 12 students worked as environmental change agents in 12 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the east of England in 2012. In this project, students were tasked as consultants working with regional SMEs, building on an earlier training initiative and where a collective of students acted as eco-auditors across the institution. This Higher Education Academy (HEA) Teaching Development Grant project was intended to harness business engagement for deeper learning and ‘green impact’ (see also: Acevedo and Johnson 2013).

In another HEA-funded Collaborative Teaching Development Grant, Beverley Leeds of Lancashire Business School at the University of Central Lancashire, led a project developing a ‘virtual high street’. allows students to engage in business activities (such as marketing) and gain an insight into the interlinking dynamics of businesses in communities. While this initiative did not directly engage businesses for learning being, in effect, a simulation technology, such an approach can prepare students for encounters in the business world.        

A wide-ranging example of business and university partnership work is Santander’s ‘Universities Global Division’. In 2007 they established a network of ‘Santander Universities’ and had 77 in the UK with arrangements in place by  2014. They have  links with 1200 HEIs across 20 countries (see: http://www.santander.co.uk/uk/santander-universities/about-us/our-partner-universities). As part of the working arrangements, Santander provides funding to the universities for specific activities, tailoring funding offered according to the different needs of the universities. This may include funding for fieldtrips and research, work experience placements, and small bursaries for particular groups of students.

What are the potential benefits of business engagement for learning?

Engaging with business creates important opportunities for knowledge-transfer and knowledge-exchange, factors that Dearing’s report (1997, 2002) and Wilson’s review (2012) highlighted as important to future economic and social prosperity. The literature has a particular focus on SMEs, and with good reason. This is one of the key ways in which universities can promote economic prosperity through linking organisations that need high-level skills with students who need valuable experience. In the changing economic environment and landscape of (future) employment, business engagement for learning is a means of engaging in and responding to government, national and international agendas, as well as a route for meeting widening participation targets (Banim and Evans 2008). Additional benefits of trust, understanding and collaboration are derived from these engagements (National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement 2009).

For larger organisations that typically recruit graduates, engagement working and partnership working helps the business to establish key links with the top graduates. It also gives students more opportunities to showcase their skills, experience and potential to graduate recruiters that may not otherwise afford them this opportunity.

When students take up professional placements, there is mutual benefit for the student in terms of increasing employability and gaining valuable experience (Mason et al. 2006; Hall et al. 2009). Similarly, business and employers can profit in many ways, not least in the cost-effective acquisition of high-level skills that students and graduates offer.

Teaching and learning resources can also be enriched through business engagement for learning: for example, De Monfort University’s Health and Life Science Open Educational Resource (HALSOER) project involves developing quality educational resources for Forensic, Biomedical and Medical Sciences (see Fowler and Rolfe 2012).

The new HEA knowledge hub is a good place to start and offers various resources linked to business engagement for learning and related content.

The University of Reading’s toolkit publication is also a helpful resource for generating ideas and implementation steps for increasing business engagement for learning, particularly ideas and approaches for work-related learning and placements (Stanbury 2009). The toolkit offers the following eight ways in which employers can be engaged in the curriculum (Stanbury 2009, pp. 10–34):

  • employers in the lecture room;
  • employer advice on the curriculum;
  • work-based learning;
  • work-related learning;
  • mentoring relationships;
  • employability modules;
  • accreditation programmes;
  • sponsorship and scholarships.

The University of Reading’s toolkit presents five ‘win-win’ scenarios for the university and the employer (Stanbury 2009, p. 37). These are that employers provide:

  • real problems for students to work on;
  • staff for delivering skills training/mentoring;
  • work placements;
  • sponsorship of events/prizes;
  • input to university activity such as, for example, membership of an industrial liaison board.

To get started developing programmes that involve business engagement for learning, it is suggested (see Stanbury 2009, p. 37) that there is a need to:

  • examine the employability context of the HEI’s students;
  • establish the current level of practice within the programme and across cognate disciplines (for example, by accessing discipline-specific resources through HEA) using a programme-level overview;
  • draw on expertise within the University and give space to practical and theoretical discussions about employer engagement;
  • identify priorities and link into other enhancement cycles wherever possible; allocating roles based upon a shared school-wide or department-wide responsibility;
  • Involve alumni as a resource (e.g. feedback) and an important point of employer contact.

What should I expect if I try this approach?

It is in the stages of setting up and negotiating placements and the early stages leading up to the start that tend to cause most difficulties (Banga and Lancaster 2013, p. 3). The greatest issues in business engagement for learning – according to Banga and Lancaster’s survey of 116 UK HEIs – include how to motivate and persuade students of the benefits of placements; preparing them for placement and getting the placement opportunity itself; and issues around working more closely with employers, in particular with SMEs (2013, p 3). Working with organisations outside of academia may require some careful negotiation around shared understandings of theory and practice and different levels of work. There may also be the issue of a lack of fit between employer and academic schedules and these issues of cost and time are likely to be inhibiting for SMEs in particular (York and Knight 2006, p. 17).


Where can I learn more about business engagement for learning?

The following are important documents to consult, which were produced specifically around the concept of business engagement for learning and offer many case studies and examples of good practices from HEIs across the UK:

  • CFE (2014) Forging Futures: Building Higher Level Skills through University and Employer Collaboration [Internet]. Report commissioned by UUK and UKCES. Universities UK. Available from http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/highereducation/Documents/2014/ForgingFutures.pdf [accessed June 2015].
  • Sterling, S. (2012) Future Fit Framework: An Introductory Guide to Teaching and Learning in HE. York: HEA.
  • Stanbury, D. (2009) Engaging Employers to Enhance Teaching and Learning: Ideas and Approaches for Work-Related and Placement Learning. Reading: University of Reading Centre for Career Management Skills.

One of the key recommended starting points is accessing the resources of the National Centre for University and Business (NCUB – http://www.ncub.co.uk/) which is an independent, not-for-profit (membership) organisation that was set up to support and promote university and business collaboration in UK. 

How else can the HEA support my professional development?

The UKPSF provides the framework for recording aspects of professional practice where Maker Culture could be included. Find out more about UKPSF.

Come to a HEA event to share your experiences with your peers – See https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/events-conferences

In your social media share your experiences of Maker Culture – you can tweet about it and include the #HEA to share it with those following the tag, or perhaps you can submit a guest blog posting through us. See https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/blog

Some relevant reports, resources and readings:

HEA resources

  • HEA Competency Framework for Student Work Based Learning https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/node/10074 
  • HEA staff secondments pilot (2013/14) programme which sought to strengthen university employer engagement strengthening university business engagement through staff secondments  https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/node/10128
  • HEA Enhancing Employability through Enterprise Education – contains case studies of good practice and can be accessed at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/node/10233
  • HEA (2014a) Professional Placements: the information on these pages has been developed as part of the teaching international students project. York: HEA.
  • Thom, V. (2013) Intercultural Skills for Employability: a Toolkit for Students, Academics and Work Placement Providers. York: HEA.
  • Whatley, J. (2013) Employability Skills through Project Based Learning. HEA: York
  • Sterling, S. (2012) Future Fit Framework: An introductory guide to teaching and learning in HE. York: HEA. Available from: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/node/3573.
  • HEA Education for Sustainable development and holistic curriculum change: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/node/3216
  • Brooks, R. (2013) Students as Educators and Mentors: Increasing Awareness of the Benefits and Participation in Sandwich Placements [Internet]. In: HEA Annual conference 2013: Available from: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/events/annualconference/2013/Presentations/Students_as_educators_Brooks.
  • Acevedo, B and Johnson, S. (2013) Sustainability in practice: Action learning and the Green Impact initiative. In, Atfield, R. and Kemp, P. (eds) Enhancing Education for Sustainable Development in Business and Management, Hospitality, Leisure, Marketing, Tourism. York: HEA.
  • Banim, M. and Evans, A. (2008) Creating and Managing Partnerships with Employers: Workforce Development with Public Sector and Private Sector Employers. In, Workforce Development. York: HEA

HEA conference presentations:

HEA-funded projects:

  • Collaborative Round 4 Teaching Development Grant – Dr. Beatriz Acevedo, Anglia Ruskin University: ‘GoGreen 12;12;12’ – 12 students working as environmental change agents in 12 companies (small and medium enterprises SMEs) in the east of England in 2012.
  • Collaborative Round 4 Teaching Development Grant – Beverly Leeds, University of Central Lancashire – Lancashire Business School: ‘EREHWON: Virtual High Street’.                                          

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