Computer Science Industry Club, Aston University

Aston’s Computer Science Industry Club (CSIC) has brought its KTP and other industrial research partners together to enhance the curriculum, support employability, and address sector-wide skills gaps. 

1. Please provide a brief description of the KE project/ case study and why you believe it is considered good practice or innovative (and for whom).

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) are strategically important to Aston, and our portfolio of programmes has grown rapidly in recent years; we are now the second most active institution in the UK – which is even more remarkable once Aston University’s size is considered. Our academic excellence in computer science, artificial intelligence and data analytics plays a crucial role in our portfolio, with a significant proportion of our partnerships currently from these disciplines.

The UK tech sector has well-documented skills shortages in computer science. Our collaborative research partners consistently confirmed that companies based outside London, especially high-tech SMEs, faced substantial challenges sourcing the talent and expertise required to drive innovation against global competition. Together, they helped us to design and to develop the platform to help recruit our students, retain talent in our region and contribute their world-class technical expertise to enrich our curriculum.

From the original pilot, engagement has grown to include a diverse group of local tech companies alongside larger corporates such as, Arcadis, ASOS, SCC and Tata Consultancy Services.  The CSIC has now been operating for six years, leveraging cutting-edge industry expertise to generate unique graduate opportunities, enhancing our students’ applied skills, and developing exciting, new research opportunities. Over 400 students have now benefitted from tailored individual support from our partner companies.

2. What impact/ outcome has this project/ activity had on your university? Students? Local economy? Staff? Other external parties, e.g. businesses.

At Aston University, we firmly believe that Knowledge Exchange is fundamental to delivering a world-class student experience, and we have a pioneering reputation for graduate employability, student entrepreneurship and our business growth and innovation programmes. We believe that combining these factors with a solid commitment to social mobility creates a unique proposition to our beneficiaries.

Over 70% of our students are the first in their household to enter higher education, with 29% coming from the 10% most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK. Given this demographic, it is essential that CSIC’s focus centres on adding further value by raising aspiration amongst our students while opening access to high-quality career opportunities in high-tech businesses.

With regards to impact, the CSIC’s operations have played a significant role in supporting our students’ employability. Jointly with our award-winning Careers and Placements office, the University support 60-70% of our students to secure a placement year, and most students placed are recruited after graduation so supporting this activity is a central part of our strategy. On the research front, CSIC’s operations have led to over £6m in industry-related grant funding, which has been catalysing further impactful research across the department.

CSIC has also raised the profile of the department and our partner companies. We have been awarded a Princess Royal Training Award in partnership with Majestic Ltd, the Tata Consultancy Services Award for Best University Engagement and a ‘Best of the Best’ Award at the national KTP Awards.

 

3. What types of resources were required to implement this project? 

We needed to build a sustainable model. As such, we ask for a £3k fee from companies to participate in the Industry Club. This amount is ploughed straight back into operating expenses, paying for a project manager and the cost of running events. 

The resource that has been most important has been the time and expertise of our company partners, who go above and beyond in supporting the department and our students by delivering:

  • Targeted guest lectures
  • Focused student showcases – students present module projects to club members with senior company staff offering valuable feedback and commercial insights
  • Insight days – student visits to partner companies
  • Company contributions to our annual ‘Aston Hack’, sponsoring the student-run hackathon and being on the judging panel for prize giving
  • Industrial Advisory Boards – company representatives helping to shape the curriculum and shaping new courses e.g. our BSc Cybersecurity and MSc Applied AI

The Club has also strengthened joint working between academic colleagues, our Careers and Placements team and senior staff from our Research and Knowledge Exchange team.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjRjzOkDTr0

4. Where did the idea for the project/ programme come from? Was this related to a strategic objective? How did you secure senior buy-in?

The idea for the Industry Club came directly from the companies we were collaborating with on research and KTPs. We were trying to add greater value to these partnerships, but it was our shared interest in working together towards a common purpose that ultimately made the difference.

Academic buy-in has also been instrumental with faculty members embracing the Club’s activities within their teaching and research activities. This has enabled us to take a joined-up and strategic approach across both curriculum-based activities and research.

5. Describe any challenges that you have had to overcome either before, during or after implementing this project.

The CSIC faced considerable challenges during the Coronavirus pandemic. Member companies responded to the pandemic with recruitment freezes and budget cuts. Moreover, many activities relied on in-person interactions, such as visits to company offices. However, the CSIC maintained its presence and momentum by transforming its usual modus operandi and leveraging online collaboration spaces. This change resulted in deeper engagement from CISC members and the department’s students and staff, while it substantially expanded reach to companies in geographical locations further away from the Midlands. 

The shift to virtual engagement gave us the opportunity to widen our portfolio of activities, introducing company employability sessions and spotlight events which gave students the chance to hear first-hand the requirements when applying for graduate positions in our members. Furthermore, a technical mentoring scheme launched which aimed to provide students with bespoke guidance on their future career plans.

6. What advice would you give others in trying to engage with hard-to-reach groups? 

Each institution has its own mission and distinct relationship with its community. Its industrial engagement agenda will, naturally, need to follow these.

We are a sector leader in employability, knowledge exchange and social mobility. We are one of the most diverse universities in the UK, with over 70% of students coming from ethnic minority backgrounds. More than half of students come from areas that are considered the least advantaged according to government data.

Our mission is to help level the playing field in terms of differential graduate outcomes, ensuring that students from all backgrounds reach their graduate potential, therefore increasing employability. The operation of the Industry Club builds on this by carefully weaving its activities into the curriculum. Academics and industrial partners alike collaborate to deliver these activities, that are part of modules thus maximising student engagement, while creating unique career and networking opportunities.

7. Next steps?

Our 2030 strategy aims to establish the University as a sector-leading industry and public sector partner for Digital Futures by providing IT innovation focusing on data science, AI, machine learning, software engineering and cybersecurity. To achieve these aims we are establishing an innovation lab in 2023 to power-up our impactful engagement with digital industries and the public sector. The lab will support students working with a range of digital industries to develop their professional skills and will also provide a conduit for Aston digital research and innovation to achieve real-world impact. 

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