From education to employment

Understanding the motivations of new Higher Education students in 2021

James Newby, Chief Operating Officer

We are now in the annual post A Level Results Day and the Clearing process, when many students think again about their university choices and their next three years.  For us at NMITE, New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering, September will see our first intake of students for our innovative Integrated Engineering Undergraduate Masters’ Degree (MEng), writes James Newby, NMITE’s Chief Operating Officer.

But this is just the culmination of many years building the institution and our focus on trying to understand exactly what will motivate these students into higher education with a real belief that what they are studying will be rewarding and enjoyable but also ensure the best career prospects.  Certainly, none of us were anticipating the pandemic and the profound effect it would have on student motivation or indeed the student experience. It will leave a lasting legacy.

Earlier in the summer we commissioned research which revealed a marked change in attitudes towards higher education amongst 16 to 18-year-olds and parents of the same age group as a result of the continuing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. When asked about their attitudes towards higher education in light of the pandemic, almost a third (31%) of 16 to 18-year-olds surveyed said it’s made them more likely to study at higher education level whereas just 17% said it has made them less likely to go on to further study. Of those who are more likely to want to pursue higher education as a result of the pandemic, almost half (48%) report that this is because the pandemic has made them feel less sure about their future and 44% say they want to make more contribution to society.

Our research demonstrates that attitudes have changed with a clear increase in demand for undergraduate study. As UCAS, the university admissions administrator, has already confirmed, there have been more applications than in previous years accompanied by a rise in offers from universities. As a new higher education provider with a radical outlook and approach geared around learning by doing and solving real world problems, it’s encouraging to see that young people can see the benefit of higher education for their own futures and that they’re wanting to make more contribution to society after everything we’ve all lived through over the past 18 months.

But our desire to understand the motivations of our potential learners started some years ago when we created a Design Cohort to help us design and test out our unique model of “learning by doing”.  This gave us valuable insight into the thinking and interests of our future students and allowed us to explore the huge value we could add by engaging with employer partners.  Engaging with employers has been a key task over the last few years and we have spent many hours asking and discussing what employers, big and small, think the future will bring and what skills will be most sought after by them in the years ahead.

We used that same set of research to compare and contrast the views of 16 to 18-year-olds, parents of 16 to 18-year-olds and employers.  Parents, for example thought that the most sought-after skill was creative problem solving (59%) compared to 48% for 16 to 18-year-olds, closely followed by communication, resilience, critical thinking and emotional intelligence.

Almost half (47%) of 16 to 18-year-olds consider real world experience important to employers, but this was rated as important by 81% of NMITE partners versus just 38% of parents. So, perhaps some of our discussions around the future of higher education should aim to involve and influence parents, many of whom play a huge part in steering their children’s choices.  On the other hand, just 15% of 16 to 18-year-olds surveyed and 16% of parents believe that examination performance and essay writing ability are desirable skills for future employers which is certainly reflected in the findings of our employer partners who rated creative problem solving, real-world experience and initiative as their top three requirements when considering potential recruits.

In many ways, though, we have had the advantage of building a university from scratch.  Originally conceived by its founders as a new higher education institution with a mission to disrupt engineering education, we have had time to debate and develop our offering.  I wouldn’t describe us as a classic university course; we are distinctly different and almost a blend of degree, apprenticeship and real-world experience in what we offer.  Our physical space too has been designed from the bottom up and now comprises teaching studios, a factory (manufacturing space with a range of specialist industrial equipment) and library space.  At the same time, we are building completely new buildings to house some of our new Study Centres such as Centre for Advanced Timber Technology (CATT) and Centre for Automated Manufacture (CAM). In terms of the teaching that will go on within these walls, we will concentrate on “learning by doing,” there will be no traditional exams and lectures, instead we favour ‘real-life’ projects.  And, unlike other engineering institutions, students will not be required to have a Maths or Physics A-level, as these subjects will be taught within the curriculum. We know that this will make a difference to students who would otherwise have felt excluded due to their early A-level choices. We believe that NMITE would be a particularly suitable choice for those who have undertaken vocational courses in further education (FE) colleges to progress to university level engineering programmes. Our programme builds academic rigour onto a more vocational style of learning that should appeal to those currently studying in non-A level courses in FE.

NMITE settled on our focus around engineering early in its development. We exist to address the UK’s shortage of work-ready graduate engineers hence our focus on an integrated engineering programme to train and nurture learners ready to tackle global challenges – such as sustainable food production, access to safe water, and clean energy – which do not fall neatly into traditional mechanical, electrical or materials engineering boxes. Learning by doing and working with our employer partners will provide the right path for students who want to be prepared with high quality work-ready skills in just three years (instead of four) who will be able to work as a professional engineer as soon as they graduate from us. Additionally, we know that engineers who succeed in work, often do so because they are skilled in ways not normally associated with engineering, such as creativity, communication and teamwork which are skills developed during the programme.

But our focus on engineering has not been without its own challenges.  Whilst we believe that engineering is an exciting and varied career path, we are aware that more needs to be done to raise the profile of engineering in general.  We believe we will see an uptick in engineering as prospective students see the part that engineers have played in tackling the pandemic, some of the “hidden heroes”.  We recently interviewed Dame Kate Bingham, the former head of the Vaccine Task Force, on this topic and her inspiring thoughts are now captured on our website for all to watch and hear.  It helps that potential students can learn more about what an engineer does and how she or he could make life better.  We want to attract learners who want to make a positive impact on quality of life, the environment and industry.

One of the key jobs undertaken during the pandemic has been finalising the team of innovative educators for this unique engineering programme because our approach is so distinct from traditional engineering education strategies. Led by Chief Academic Officer, Professor Beverley Gibbs, this team has been brought together integrating both engineering science with liberal arts in a series of ‘sprints’ and challenges, which will be set by potential future employers in real-world contexts. This way, we’re challenging the traditional professional training element for undergraduates. Normally, students are sent on a year-long professional training placement as part of their course. NMITE brings a different employer, and a different practical engineering challenge, for each of its engineering sprints, meaning that NMITE students will experience many different professional training opportunities during their studies.

With only weeks to go, there is now a feeling of real excitement as we get ready for opening. We have made no secret that we intend to do things differently and be a challenger institution for engineering education. We’re looking forward to welcoming students from all walks of life and at varying life stages as we believe these differing perspectives is exactly what the engineering industry in the UK needs. Our admissions processes are highly contextual; even our Clearing process, which is quick and simple, is based on getting to know the applicant more than their exam results. Applications are considered on an individual basis to identify the qualities that will create a successful learner. Curiosity, determination, grit and interpersonal skills are equally as important to us as academic track record.

James Newby, Chief Operating Officer at NMITE

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