Pounds 5.3m centre is jewel in Midlands' crown

April 7, 1995

Ministers in search of a model for a working partnership between higher education and industry may be encouraged by recent developments in Birmingham's "jewellery quarter".

Last week, the University of Central England formally opened a new Pounds 5.3 million school of jewellery complex in the heart of what is seen as Britain's leading centre for jewellery production.

The confidence which attracted this major investment by the university, with support from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Birmingham City Council, is partly the product of a long-standing relationship between the school and local industry, and partly of a resurgence of interest among jewellery companies in education and training.

Although most companies were forced to cut costs during the recession, there are now signs that the economic upturn is allowing firms to look again to the long term and the skills staff will need to assure the industry's survival.

As Gerald Whiles, head of the school of jewellery, said: "We cannot know for sure how the industry is faring, but the car parks are always full and the lights in the workshops are on at night, which is usually a good sign."

Not only that, but Gay Booth, the school's industry co-ordinator, has noted a growing number of inquiries from firms looking for appropriate training, prospective employees, closer collaboration or help from the school's consultancy service.

The courses on offer range from youth training at National Vocational Qualification level 2 through to an MA in Silversmithing and Jewellery. Students are able to specialise in horology or gemmology, as well as incorporating management training and wider design elements into their courses. They can pursue their studies full- or part-time, or on release from work.

Many students are employees of local companies, or set up their own firms on completing a course. But the careers of others do not follow a narrowly defined path. One who completed a BA in silversmithing and jewellery, for example, went on to do an MA in industrial design and eventually became a car interior designer for leading car manufacturers. Another who did the same course worked for Unesco on a project to set up a new training programme in India.

The school regards these as major success stories, even though they are not the kind of outcomes the jewellery industry is likely to have in mind when it talks about its training needs.

Ms Booth explained: "Companies now have to be more flexible in order to survive, therefore good ones will invest in recruiting multi-skilled people, which is what we try to provide."

Research which the school helped to conduct recently showed that the jewellery industry needs to move up a gear to meet a challenge from the Far East, which is able to produce a high volume of goods at low cost. Birmingham is likely to be in the front line since it is responsible for most of Britain's low to medium-value jewellery.

Professor Whiles said: "Many now believe that the way we should handle the competition from the East is to lead in the 'smart' end of the industry with our design and new technology expertise."

To that end, the new school building is equipped with some of the most up-to-date computer-aided tools, which allow students to do leading-edge work in areas like electroforming - the process of "growing" metal objects by electro-deposition. It also breaks away from the workshop traditions of the industry, where design and drawing are separated from manufacture, creating instead workstations where designing, drawing, making and refining activities can be carried out in the same area.

The overall aim is to encourage interaction between students on different educational paths and levels, Professor Whiles says. Though a member of the NVQ lead body for the jewellery industry, he is critical of the narrow outlook on training that he believes some Employment Department initiatives encourage. The industry too may need to be persuaded that a broad approach is best.

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