Louise Arnold: Students can teach as well as learn

Mutual benefits are the key to working together, argues Louise Arnold

Interface is in a prime position to help match businesses with university expertise, including students studying a variety of courses across Scotland. Picture: Contributed
Interface is in a prime position to help match businesses with university expertise, including students studying a variety of courses across Scotland. Picture: Contributed

The business benefits of working with students are numerous, bringing a fresh source of new ideas, approaches and skills.

So often lack of resources within businesses means that an idea stays on the drawing board, even if it hinders business growth, but thanks to a number of initiatives linking businesses with universities, the option to work with Scotland’s top-class students from a diverse range of disciplines is more accessible than ever.

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And Interface is in a prime position to help match businesses with university expertise, including students studying a variety of courses across Scotland.

Working with businesses and organisations can enhance students’ employability by developing work-relevant skills, making them more “job ready”. While students can be achieving well academically they have the opportunity to significantly develop transferable skills and build confidence which are best gained at the coalface of industry: speaking to clients on the phone, making presentations, business planning, devising a marketing strategy, conducting meetings, financial planning and decision making.

Euan Ryan, a recent graduate, worked with independent Scottish publisher, Bright Red Publishing, as part of his business management degree at the University of Edinburgh.

As part of a team, he assessed the company’s potential growth strategies, analysed their feasibility and potential new markets.

Euan has said that by working with a company he was able to apply the theoretical and academic knowledge gained from university in a real life situation. It changed the whole dynamic when concepts and analysis related to real problems with real constraints. As he said, it’s one thing to understand models, and it’s another to apply them.

Euan has already drawn on some of his experiences at Bright Red Publishing to secure employment.

Team working and managing stakeholders are other learning outcomes which Ewan and his team took away from the collaboration.

Bright Red Publishing’s Director, John MacPherson, also praised working with the student group, citing their knowledge and clear vision as positive attributes which would assist the company’s operations and future strategy.

The recommendations contained in the students’ final report would be of great use to the company, which would implement almost all of them.

Many of Scotland’s universities operate industry-led student based learning projects, where companies put forward real business challenges for students to tackle. Students work with the companies, where they scope out a defined brief, undertake research and deliver their findings, analysis and recommendations to the business.

Projects can include group work, covering 8-12 weeks, or students can undertake an individual company sponsored dissertation on a specific research topic. The stakes are high for students as it often forms a large part of their final grade.

Feedback from the university departments is that they greatly welcome the connections Interface makes for them with a diverse range of businesses bringing a variety of challenging projects.

The team at Interface work with hundreds of businesses every year to find them the right academic expertise to develop new products, services and processes. In some instances, the solution may connect businesses with students.

Academic–business collaboration extends beyond laboratory based research and development: business process innovation, strategy development such as identifying new customers or suppliers, analysing the impact of new legislation or regulations, pursuing global markets or business planning can all be undertaken.

Feedback from the businesses and students has been really positive with both gaining great benefits from the collaborations. We’ve heard from businesses that the projects have made tangible differences to their growth, future direction and strategy, while the students rise to the challenge of tackling real business problems, often finding that their suggested solutions are being implemented by the companies.

“In addition, these projects can often be the start of a longer term relationship between the university and the business.”

Comments made by the businesses which have worked with students included:

“We can definitely take things away from what they’ve done and apply them in our world.”

“Great use of personal experience and a global perspective.”

“Strengthened our belief in some of the things we could do.”

“Definitely some nuggets to pick up on”.

As Nick Oliver, Professor of Management at the University of Edinburgh’s Business School, said to me recently, there really is no substitute for students rolling their sleeves up and working with real-life problems – and it’s a real selling point for the university as it is one of the reasons students are attracted to a university.

• Louise Arnold, business engagement executive, Interface