UNIVERSITIES once considered themselves as ivory towers where the elite gathered to immerse themselves in dusty textbooks and carry out their worthy research.
Students were safely hidden away from the attentions of the profit-driven private sector.
But closer ties are now developing between places of higher education and the companies who eagerly snap up their graduates.
A government-backed programme called the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) is now ensuring that students can benefit from the best academia and industry have to offer before the ink on their diploma is dry.
The best graduates are being selected to conduct research for small to medium-sized companies in the role of "associates". They are charged with investigating a particular subject which could boost their employer’s business, while using the abundant facilities available at their alma mater.
Napier University has been one of its most active participants and the clutch of awards it has gathered in the last two years has repaid its faith in the scheme.
Dr Bill Buchanan, a respected academic and member of Napier’s School of Computing, has guided a number of students through their placements.
"Big companies can afford to have research and development departments but small and medium operations do not have the resources," he says.
"They can now gain access to the facilities and experts we have at the university. It is very like an American model where universities and the private sector are more closely tied together.
"The company gets to select a graduate with a first-class or upper second degree to work for them for a period of two years as an associate. The programme is well-defined with objectives set out for each student to achieve at their chosen firm.
"Then if, for example, an associate needs assistance with maths for a particular project they can contact our maths department.
"The companies need the associates because they do not have the skills in-house or the access to equipment which we can provide."
The project is funded by the Department of Trade and Industry which covers half the costs of each associate, including their travel expenses. Most will spend one day a week at the company with the rest of their time spent on their field of research.
Places are highly coveted, with 70 per cent of all associates being asked to remain at their company after the two-year programme has been completed.
"It is up to the company who they select," says Dr Buchanan. "There could be 40 or 50 people on a list of which six to 12 are chosen to go forward. Then one or maybe two associates will get a position after the interview process.
"The company has to feel that the person will fit in as well as demonstrate the technical abilities. Most of the recruitment takes place in July when students are graduating from their courses."
But the students who take part in the scheme derive more than the possibility of a permanent job. They have been picked out as future pioneers in their field who need a range of additional abilities to prepare them for a leadership role.
Dr Buchanan adds: "The skills an associate is developing are not purely technical as they are at university. During their time with a company they will learn about management, e-commerce and globalisation. They will also be studying for an NVQ Level Four qualification in management at the same time."
He says Napier is taking its top students from disciplines such as IT, computing and engineering and giving them a chance to use their skills. But they are also picking up management techniques which prepares them for their future roles as business leaders.
"There are a large number of applicants for the associate places and we are only taking the best," Dr Buchanan says.
"In fact, we are head-hunting them from the different departments to find the people who are most suitable.
"An associate is also likely to be enrolled in a further course of study for an MSc or a PhD so at the end of their two-year placement they will have another qualification. These studies will help to refine their skills in areas such as reviewing papers and conducting research."
Among the companies presently employing Napier graduates are Grangemouth-based DB Projects, where an associate is working to develop a new biocide, and John Gordon and Son, a Nairn sawmill where another is using scanning technology to try to increase its productivity.
Other groups are lining up to become involved and reap the considerable rewards. One software company based in the Capital recently forecast a six-figure profit this year, helped in no small way by the endeavours of its Napier associate.
Seven Layer Communications, a small firm from South Queensferry, specialises in testing and verifying embedded and real-time products for a range of markets, including telecoms and networking.
The company identified savings which could be made in product testing if embedded software employed reusable elements.
Associate Hasanain Golum was assigned to explore the concept as part of the KTP scheme and quickly set to work to find a solution.
After proving that the concept was viable, the graduate developed a framework for reusable software components for high-speed network design.
Until last year Seven Layer Communications was reliant on a small clientele for its business. The new capability has unlocked a much broader customer base, and plans are already afoot for further product development in this area.
Staff at the School of Computing benefited from being exposed to the very latest computer technology and this later formed part of the department’s teaching material. Meanwhile, Mr Golum also gained more academic and professional qualifications during his associateship, achieving a Masters degree and becoming a member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers. He now works for financial spread betting firm IG Index.
Ian Smith, managing director of Seven Layer Communications, is full of praise for the scheme. "The project that we have undertaken has given us the opportunity to develop new technologies that allow us to provide greater benefits for our clients," he says.
There are currently around 300 different KTPs active throughout the UK. Awards are handed out to the most successful partnerships and Napier has collected more than its share of the plaudits. "Napier has won Certificate of Excellence awards for the past two years and we’re confident we can do it again this year," says Dr Buchanan.
A Certificate of Excellence was only awarded to five programmes out of a total of 600 in 2002.
He adds: "Our record is among the best in the UK. For the awards, KTP projects from across the country are evaluated to see how the company, associate and university benefited from the scheme. There are currently around 300 running so it’s very competitive.
"Napier has done very well and so have the companies we have worked with. But this marriage of academia and industry is going to become even more widespread in the future and we will be at the forefront."
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