Business backers

Tony Tysome and Harriet Swain go in search of the Midlands, a region that is busy bridging an east-west divide, increasing participation rates and developing links

The potteries industry in Staffordshire is keeping up with the international competition by exploiting its connections with regional higher education, writes Tony Tysome.

Researchers from Keele University, which in the past has been ambivalent in its relationship with the industry, are giving traditional potteries crafts a technological edge and helping to develop products.

While forms of thermally stable ceramic pigments developed in partnership with Keele are ensuring that the production of pots does not fall behind the times, researchers are leading the industry in new directions with advanced ceramic materials used in fuel cells and making bone replacements.

"A lot of this work is being led by the universities," says Brigid Heywood, a professor of chemistry at Keele. "We do basic research, but in an environment in which we stand shoulder to shoulder with local companies."

Across the Midlands higher education institutions are demonstrating their worth to the local economy by showing they are prepared to tailor their services and ways of working to meet the needs of business and industry in the region.

David Wallace, vice-chancellor of Loughborough University, explains the culture shift required to achieve this. "Our mission includes advancing industry and commerce and benefiting society. In the past we have done this through links with national companies. When you try to do that in your local region you need a different know-how. It means working on a smaller scale and to tighter deadlines," he says.

Consultancy and market research are booming areas of collaborative work between universities in the region and industry. At Nottingham Trent University, a major research project is under way to update the clothing industry's guidelines for the average size and shape of women.

Clothing retailers and manufacturers are taking part in the pilot of a database that will help them locate source materials.

The university has also developed a free-standing quality assurance system for accrediting training programmes that companies want to develop into award-bearing courses.

The University of Central England in Birmingham hopes to make its mark with local industry through its involvement in the development of Millennium Point, a Pounds 110 million development in the heart of the city with a technology innovation centre, discovery centre and University of the First Age. Birmingham University, Aston, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire and Coventry are also expected to be involved.

Peter Knight, UCE vice-chancellor, says: "In the Dearing report, there was a lot of rubbish talked about collaboration, implying that it was good for collaboration's sake. But if there is an opportunity such as Millennium Point, it can become a market driver."

Coventry University is rooted in the region's industries, where its graduates work closely with local car manufacturers in every aspect of the production process, from design to marketing.

Leicester University's long-standing reputation for space research has culminated in a Space Research Centre, backed by regional industry. It will provide a visitor centre with simulated space missions as well as research programmes in space, astronomy and technology.

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