The Employer Engagement Initiative (EEI) at the University of Southampton aimed to increase the coherence of
the University’s approach to employer engagement, especially its ability to offer flexible education at
postgraduate level in the shape of work-based learning (WBL), online/e-learning and flexible programmes. In
doing this, the Initiative sought to facilitate employee learning, address employer needs, and contribute to
the long-term development of the University in line with University strategic priorities.
The Initiative was originally planned to consist of three phases:
1. Building and testing flexible academic processes for employer engagement, 2008–2010,
2. Cascading, extending and capacity building, 2010–2012,
3. Formalising and integrating employer engagement activity (no funds sought for Phase Three).
(Employer Engagement Initiative, Annexe A, Business Plan)
The overall aims of the Initiative as expressed in the bid were to:
1. Address the current fragmented approach to employer engagement
2. Make changes to our [the University’s] academic processes to enable flexible delivery of M level
3. Fund three pilot projects at M level to test cooperation with Business, through content, flexible
delivery and new funding mechanisms.
4. Establish a Design Centre at Southampton responding to the needs of employers.
(Employer Engagement Initiative Summary Document, Annex B, 2007)
The evaluation provided ongoing formative evaluation during the course of the Initiative and a summative
evaluation in Autumn 2010. Such an evaluation is not straightforward. Cultural change and impact are hard
to assess and may take years to evolve. It is not easy to separate out the effects of a particular initiative and
other intervening factors. In this report, we can only provide an interim assessment of what has happened
and what the effects appear to be so far, with some tentative predictions about the future (especially given
the current unsettled state of British higher education).
Phase 1 September 2008–April 2009
The purposes of this phase were to:
• improve our (evaluator) understandings of this complex Initiative;
• provide a baseline understanding for the EEI team of the project’s starting points in terms of
positions, expectations and feelings of the various people involved;
• provide some initial, tentative feedback on progress of the Initiative;
• inform the design of the second phase of the evaluation.
Phase 2 May 2009-August 2010
The purposes of this phase were to:
• provide further understandings for the EEI team of the Initiative’s development, based on the
perceptions of the various stakeholders involved and our interpretations of those;
• provide ongoing formative feedback on the progress of the Initiative;
• produce a summative report.
There are various components to the Initiative and it has been necessary to speak to a wide range of those
involved: EEI team members; Steering Group members; Research and Innovation Services (R&IS)
representatives; pilot Masters programme representatives; Business Fellows; and others with relevant
knowledge. We have carried out 31 interviews with 25 people.
Contextual factors played a central role in the working of the Employer Engagement Initiative (EEI).
The change in external economic conditions between 2007, when the bid was written, and 2008 when the
Initiative started meant that the EEI functioned in a vastly different environment from that envisaged by the
bid’s authors and the Higher Education Funding Council and had a profound effect on what the Initiative was
able to achieve. Employers were less able to finance continuing professional development (CPD) for their
The internal university environment also had a powerful effect on achievements. Initial staffing challenges
delayed the start of the Initiative. In October 2009 a new Vice-Chancellor took office, initiating and pursuing
policies likely to encourage the development of flexible delivery of courses, but also initiating a period of
reorganisation. This made it more difficult to achieve concrete changes during this period because of the
uncertainties about structures, processes and the role of relevant personnel in the new structure.
The evaluation’s key findings are reported in relation to each of the Initiative’s central aims:
Aim 1 Increasing the coherence of the university approach to employer engagement
The EEI achieved the following:
• Worked with R&IS to develop the university’s virtual Gateway, through enhancing presentation of the
existing CPD offer and assisting with an analysis of competitor websites;
• Directly engaged in or facilitated the following processes: general awareness raising within the
university; awareness raising of needs and interests external to the university; specific interactions
between particular university units and employers and sector representatives; adding CPD
discussions to existing meetings between the university and employers; and a contribution to cultural
change in the university;
• Implemented three audit and mapping activities (an initial audit of existing flexible, postgraduate
provision, a mapping project for the Maritime University Strategic Research Group, and an
assessment of university activity within the maritime sector);
• Developed understandings about what was and what was not likely to be of interest to employers;
• Contributed to the development of a Corporate Relationship Strategy.
Although several factors assisted the Initiative (the existence and contributions of Research and Innovation
Services, Careers Destinations, existing academic-employer links), other factors posed challenges for the EEI
(non-standard processes across 20 Schools, communication within a large university and the difficulties of
building trust between different parts of the institution with different processes, structures, personnel and
Aim 2 Changes to academic processes to enable flexible delivery of M level education
The EEI achieved the following:
• Submitted the business case for changing various administrative systems in the University which will
make flexible delivery more possible;
• A Technology Enhanced Learning Guide offering principles of practice, identifying key issues for
planning and managing TEL projects, seeking to encourage academic engagement in TEL, and
providing details of internal and external people and organisations to contact about proposed
• Reviewing the quality assurance procedures of the University and assessing their suitability for
employer responsive provision, and proposing various options for quality assurance of flexible
• Input into the Curriculum Innovation Programme within the University, especially the sub-sections of
postgraduate taught courses and continuing professional development;
• Initiation of discussion about various financial aspects of flexible provision, including payment-inkind
and actual costs of teaching particular courses.
Although some factors assisted the EEI (the possibility of ‘workarounds’ and a culture of working things out),
others worked against the Initiative including registration, financial, IT and quality systems designed to
support full-time students on full-length programmes.
Aim 3 Pilot projects
The EEI achieved the following:
• As this report goes to press, a flexibly delivered, postgraduate certificate in Environmental Health,
leading potentially to a full Masters pathway, is being developed. Not only will this deliver a new
programme to the university, but also a model of how such a course can be developed using a variety
of expertise, including that of freelance learning designers.
• One module in an Energy Certificate has been developed.
• The team has been involved in exploring in some depth the possibility of an undergraduate
programme tailored to the needs of a specific employer, the outcome of this is as yet unclear.
Although some factors assisted the EEI in developing its pilots of postgraduate flexible provision (pre-existing
flexible units and programmes within the University with related expertise in programme development,
administration and marketing), other factors provided challenges including the traditional focus in the
university on full-time, traditional-age students which meant there was little incentive or need for Schools or
academics to investigate other models. Various options for development were explored as the project
Aim 4 Design Centre
The loss of the building where the Design Centre was to be was an early major blow to the Initiative, making
it impossible to have such a Centre.
The EEI aimed to recruit 60 new M level FTE students on to flexible credit-based courses, co-funded by
employers. It had been envisaged that the ASN allocation would be used on the pilot courses described
previously. This proved problematic for three main reasons:
• Suitable courses could not be developed in time, although the new Environment Health Certificate
should recruit from October 2011 on a part-time basis.
• ASNs were difficult to use. In order to get 60 ASNs (FTE), the university would need to recruit
perhaps 200 or 250 part-time Masters students for a year to do one or two modules in order to reach
• The University has other groups of students who may fit the ASN criteria, but it is hard to access the
relevant data as it is currently not routinely collected.
This picture was complicated by the somewhat complex and unclear nature of the funding for ASNs.
Engagement with employers presents universities with various dilemmas and challenges relating to the nature
and extent of risk taken on and effort and resources invested, as priorities are balanced. These are
documented in this report and are also clearly visible in the wider literature (inter alia Bolden et al. 2010;
Connor and Hirsh 2008; and the Lambert Review 2003).
There are significant cultural differences within sub-sections of the University as well as between the
University and employers. Such differences are well documented in the external literature. Such cultural
differences will continue to exist, given the complex nature of higher education. We suggest that the negative
effects as regards engagement with employers can be minimised by the recommendations below.
Short-term funding affects the nature of goals and achievements; it is hard to develop sustainable
relationships, processes and products within short funding periods.
The University should make a clear decision about how far, if at all, it wants to position itself with regard to
employer engagement in M level provision (and across the curriculum) and take action accordingly. Is it a
strategic priority? If so, certain steps should be taken to facilitate such activity. These include:
• A clearer and more explicit path of authority and leadership for employer and community
engagement within the University to signal its importance.
• Systemic co-ordination of relationships and systems within the University as regards employer
engagement, through strategies, formalised systems of co-operation and audit and mapping
• More active interactions outside the University at e.g. industry/university matching events, perhaps
with a particular focus on large employers and existing employer partnerships.
• Adjustment of working patterns, workload models and promotion systems within the University to
facilitate some staff focusing on such employer engagement.
• Adjustment of financial, registration and accreditation systems and requirements to enable more
• More flexible support of e-learning provision.
• The limitations of short-term funding must be considered and recognised in bids, which should be
based on realistic, achievable aims within the timescale.
• Achievements are likely to be enhanced by clear line management structures within short-term
projects and by co-location of those responsible for ‘delivering the project’.