What was the challenge?

UK businesses can’t find enough people with the skills they need, and higher education hasn’t worked enough with industry to bridge this gap. If higher education can start to nurture the full breadth of available talent, we can fix a pressing concern for our economy and wider society.

Growing up, I wanted to be a teacher. And yet, on my first university open day, I felt completely overwhelmed. I remember thinking, “I don’t belong here. People like me don’t go to university.” I didn’t apply, and went straight into roles in industry.

“On my first university open day, I remember thinking, ‘I don’t belong here. People like me don’t go to university.’”

It was only later in my life when I joined a university as a guest lecturer, and later as an advisory board member, that I realised that the problem wasn’t on my end. I saw first-hand how universities, well-meaning but typically focused on academic research, struggle to attract applicants from harder-to-reach communities — and how little they were communicating with the world of business, too.

So when I got the call from a well-known Manchester United footballer saying he and his teammates were setting up a University Academy in the North West, I jumped at the chance to join. UA92 is designed to tackle both these issues: making higher education more accessible, and nurturing the skills and talents that companies in the North West need.

What was your strategy for addressing the challenge?

Recruitment and outreach

UA92 is an educational experience designed to unlock greatness in the North West. Founded in 2017, we currently have around 600 students.

About 70% of our students come from Greater Manchester, where the UA92 campus is based. We concentrate on grassroot community recruitment, using ambassadors within local communities, who aim to reach young people with real potential — those that university feels a long way off for. The goal is to open their minds to what’s possible.

After admission

But it’s one thing to attract these people, and it’s another to make it possible for them to attend. So, we try to remove any barriers for students who may have other responsibilities, such as caring or work.

Firstly, we structure classes with accessibility in mind. Students are either a morning or an afternoon student for their whole three years, so they have a reliable schedule to organise the rest of their lives around. Degrees are structured into six-week modules which can be picked up at any point throughout the year, so there are multiple intakes throughout the year, and no one has to wait until next September to get started.

“It’s one thing to attract these people, and it’s another to make it possible for them to attend.”

Secondly, we offer practical, pragmatic support. Working with corporate partners, we’ve created Make it for Real, a package that covers many of the things that are easy to take for granted but can make or break a person’s ability to enrol:

  • Meals: Co-Op provide the students with a funded card, covering a meal every day of the week, for 52 weeks of the year, for the three years they are with us. Our students may have been receiving free school meals throughout their education, so for them and their families there’s a very real question around how they will eat if they attend university.
  • Equipment: Microsoft provide the students with the devices they need to study and complete assignments, and TalkTalk provide connectivity for those devices.
  • Lodging: Dunelm support students who are living in student accommodation with a home starter pack.
  • Commute: We provide a travel card to make sure that students can get to campus.

Bringing a business mindset into higher education

Within the university setting, bringing a business mindset has helped us design the best experience for students.

First, in terms of agility. Structuring degrees around six-week modules has introduced an agile, feedback-led mindset. The UA92 board look at the attainment and satisfaction of each module immediately after it’s completed, so that we know exactly what tweaks to make before the next class begins the same module. I don’t know any business that would wait a year to review its practices — so why would we?

“I don’t know any business that would wait a year to review its practices — so why would we?”

And second, around stakeholder management. Our primary stakeholder is our student body: we refer to our students as customers. At the end of the day, our students are paying a lot of money, and we must look after them like any sustainable business looks after its customers.

What impact has this had?

Our first cohort of students will be graduating this July, and there are two key metrics we’ll be looking at:

  1. Local employment: are they set on the path to their dream job, and is it within Greater Manchester? We want them to find great employment, whilst not losing them to London.
  1. Attainment: does their university attainment show progress from their school attainment? We want to see that we’ve added value.

“We want to see that we’ve added value.”

How do you sustain change?

There are two parts to this question: how is UA92 going to sustain change, and how can businesses work well with education to sustain change.

For UA92, the reason our offering works so well is because it is small, and community-focused, with courses tailored to the local economy. That could work elsewhere: I see the opportunity to establish a series of campuses across the country, particularly in regions which tend to lose their university graduates to the larger cities. Wherever there’s a local economic need for skills, a university like UA92 can play a role in creating circular economic infrastructure between academia and business.

We make sure our business partners go beyond philanthropy. They have to get involved — and the more they get involved, the more they benefit. A good example is our “character and personal development” module, which counts towards all final degrees. Leaders from our corporate partners provide guest lectures, and their stories and learnings bring these topics to life: What does it mean to be resilient? How do you network? How do you manage stakeholders?

They also provide mentoring, run networking events, and create opportunities for our alumni to join their organisation post-graduation. It usually takes a few years to develop these soft skills once you join the workforce, so not only do our students get a real head start, our partners also get to hire graduates who stand head and shoulders above others when it comes to being work-ready.

More generally, businesses need to start scoping out the talent of the future, or they will find themselves in a costly race to the bottom as the UK labour market keeps getting hotter. Our approach allows businesses to do more than tick a box in an ESG report. Rather, it’s an opportunity to come to the party and contribute — in a substantial, meaningful way, that creates real change.

Marnie Millard OBE is a business leader with a career history in FMCG retail, spanning from being CEO of Nichols and president of the British Soft Drinks Association to sitting on the board of Finsbury Food Group, Marks Electrical, Belvoir Farm, and Kidly. In recent years, Marnie has turned her expertise to education, first as an advisory board member of Manchester Metropolitan University and now as chair of UA92.

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