Grassroots bid to retain talent

April 26, 1996

How do you keep a Welsh graduate in Wales, give a former miner the chance to do a degree, regenerate your local economy and forge a regional identity for your institution all at the same time?

Welsh universities and colleges of higher education think they have the answer. They say that they are achieving ambitious targets for building links with businesses ranging from small, local companies to multinationals. Heads of institutions and academics want their universities and colleges to have a strong regional and local focus.

Plans were unveiled last week to expand an initiative which has forged regional partnerships between institutions, communities, companies and local authorities.

The Community University of the Valleys, started in 1991 in the former mining community of Banwen by the University of Wales, Swansea, has become a three-way venture between Swansea, the Open University and the University of Glamorgan. Now these universities are looking at ways of extending the CUV across South Wales, taking in other valley locations.

The CUV was set up to offer students part-time courses for a BA degree in humanities in their own community. It is designed to overcome many of the social and economic barriers to higher education. It achieves this by combining the use of local community, school and college facilities for teaching with distance-learning programmes.

According to Hywel Francis, head of adult continuing education at Swansea and chairman of the CUV steering group, the initiative is making a key contribution to economic regeneration, involving small companies as well as big ones like British Telecom in backing acces- sible education and training options.

"It is not unlike a model which is spreading across the European Union of developing regional partnerships between local government, trades unions, businesses, universities and colleges. There is now a sense of the inevitable in the development of this kind of regional focus, but we should see there are sound reasons for it. From the economic point of view, universities have a key role to play in the regeneration of their local area," he said.

This argument is being pressed by Welsh higher education heads, who are planning to gather evidence on the contribution higher education makes to the Welsh economy. Research at the University of Wales, Cardiff, found that the university had a considerable economic impact on its region. Last year the university bought goods and services valued at Pounds 36 million, of which 40 per cent were purchases from local business. Additionally, the local spending of the university's 13,000 students was almost Pounds 34 million.

The centre is also working on an EU-backed project to see how businesses can harness innovation and another on Welsh university/industry relations. Phil Cooke, director of the university's centre for advanced studies in the social sciences, which carried out the research, said growth in manufacturing industries in Wales had opened up new opportunities for research and development.

"The name of the game is to have industry partners, and our projects are identifying the need for an innovation structure in Wales," he said.

Welsh institutions are placing particular emphasis on encouraging small and medium-sized employers to recruit more graduates and enter into research partnerships.

Last month William Hague, the Secretary of State for Wales, launched a new Innovation Network, which aims to bring smaller businesses in contact with university researchers. Meanwhile, the Cymru Prosper Wales programme, backed by the Welsh Office and the Welsh Development Agency, has achieved its target of securing 250 graduate placements in small and medium-sized firms, and has set a new goal of 400 more for 1996/97.

The programme provides an eight-week undergraduate vacation placement scheme, a 12-week graduate placement scheme, and a database on the Internet on vacancies and graduates seeking work. Chris Walker, programme manager, said it was now easier for Welsh graduates to stay in Wales rather than be "poached" by English firms.

"Companies have been so impressed with those on placements that they have been encouraged to recruit graduates, while students are now beginning to look more to the local small business for career opportunities," he said.

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