Sorry Jeremy, but ‘corporations on campus’ can help inspire students

Engagement with business can be vital for giving disadvantaged students a bright future, says Kirsty Palmer

June 1, 2019
Man giving talk
Source: Getty

Last week, Jeremy Corbyn welcomed the election of Jo Grady as the new general secretary of the University and College Union with a tweet that sought to “get corporations out of the classroom and off campus”. A catchy phrase to be sure, but one that, for me at any rate, is a little too blunt in its analysis of the importance of the relationship between business and higher education in 2019.

I appreciate that the Labour leader might have been referring to the outsourcing of university services such as catering, security and cleaning, and the reasonable concerns that people hold about the impact of that. But the breadth of the phrase (even allowing for the difficulty in accommodating nuance on Twitter) might lead to unintended consequences.

As a director of student services with responsibility for careers advice and employability outcomes in a university where 40 per cent of students come from economically disadvantaged areas, I am dismayed to think that this line of thinking could reduce our ability to connect our students with future employers.

In this academic year alone, more than 100 “corporations” have attended events at our university, from careers fairs to industry forums to “day in the life…” talks that give students a sense of what it means to work in a particular industry. More than 2,000 students have heard what these companies have to say.

We have also invited guest speakers from industry into classrooms to explain how theory applies in the real world of work. This brings the curriculum to life, making it relevant, engaging and directly connected to economic and social growth. Would we really want to lose this just for the want of a bit of nuanced thinking?

Cardiff Metropolitan University recruits strongly from the local area, including the South Wales valleys – not areas well known in recent times for their rapid economic growth. Students from these areas have already overcome incredible barriers to reach university, and we are committed to giving them the boost they need to get over the next set of barriers into a great job on graduation. This is not, by the way, about that tired old cliché of “raising aspiration”: our students have no lack of aspiration and ambition. What they lack is information about their options. That’s where our relationship with business comes in.

Imagine that you have been brought up in a close-knit community where you walk to the same school your parents attended; parents who now work locally in low- or medium-skill jobs. Almost your entire extended family is close at hand, along with all your friends. The only knowledge you might have about available careers refers to the ones you see in front of you: shop worker, factory staff, mechanic, teacher, or what you see on TV.

What if you think that none of those is right for you? What if you know you want to do something else but have no idea what that could be? Or you do know but have no idea how to get there? You have been told by teachers, the media, and every politician within two feet of a microphone in the past 20 years that getting to university is the key to getting a better job, so you work hard, get your grades and get a place. How would you feel if that university then failed to help navigate your way to achieving those aspirations?

In my own undergraduate days, as a modern languages student from a background not all that different from the one described above, I approached the careers service at my ancient and venerable institution, only to be directed towards a career in teaching. On rejecting their suggestion, I was asked why I was studying languages if I did not want to teach, as that was the best option for “a student like [me]”. Others on my course who had a more “suitable” backgrounds were directed towards a career in the foreign office, international banking or development work.

This is not how we do things any more. We work with our corporate partners to ensure that every student understands all their options and can make an informed choice. Businesses provide placements, advice on curriculum content, role models and mentors. They are an essential cog in the machine of ensuring our students get the maximum benefit from their university education. No student now would be dismissed as I was. This is an immeasurable improvement in the student experience.

So, corporations on campus? Yes please.

Kirsty Palmer is director of student services at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘Corporations on campus’ perform a vital role

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