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CATE 2023: Pizza model: embedding employability and enterprise at university

18 Sep 2023 | Dr Lee J. Higham Newcastle University’s School of Natural and Environmental Sciences is a winner of the 2023 Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence (CATE). Dr Lee Higham, Academic Lead for Employability and Enterprise describes a model of collaborative working that integrates academics, professional services, industry and other stakeholders to upskill undergraduates and boost their employability.

How can academics across different subjects work collaboratively with colleagues from the International Office, Careers Service and Library integrate with international universities, industry and external stakeholders to boost undergraduate employability skills?  

The School of Natural and Environmental Sciences Employability and Enterprise Working Group was created at Newcastle University to foster collaborations between academic staff in the School and Library, International Office and Careers Service colleagues and industry partners to co-create initiatives which raise student employability and future-proof their skills via ‘real world’ problem solving. Working together, teaching smart and giving students access to industry and universities abroad are the group’s top tips for embedding employability and enterprise at university. 

Tip 1. Appreciate employability is not teaching or research, but a new third pillar of activity  

In order to meet their employability objectives, universities will need to ensure their engagement and impact in this area is of a standard equal to that provided by their typical teaching and research modes. However, because the employability and skills agenda is relatively new and fluid, it is essential that a coherent strategy is implemented in order to develop critical mass in this area. 

The broad range of employability activities that students can engage in presents many opportunities but also unique challenges, meaning that the traditional organisational structures which universities use for subject-specific teaching and research are inappropriate.  

Centralised services including the International Office, Careers Service and Library report a common frustration: getting their messages into academic schools to secure student/staff ‘buy-in’. It also became apparent from consultations with companies that they met similar barriers, limiting University access and hence their ability to help shape our programmes. Opportunities for students lacked visibility and ‘cut-through’ and the same issues prevented activities promoting entrepreneurship from attracting wider interest. Exceptional opportunities were available, but were ad hoc in nature, attracting only the keenest students - and as a result remained off the radar of many.  

On reflection, the challenges faced by the Library, Careers Service, International Office and external partners were common to them all and by tackling and resolving them in collaboration, it was recognised that great gains could be made across a range of key University objectives (increasing employability, skills, mobility and industrial interactions). A new model of working with colleagues from diverse, heterogeneous units across the University, integrating and collaborating together and with our external industry and policy stakeholders, was therefore required.  

Tip 2. Collaboration is key  

The School of Natural and Environmental Sciences Employability and Enterprise Working Group’s (EEWG) ‘pizza model’ was designed to foster collaborative working approaches between academic staff from the different subject specialisms in the School, colleagues from the Library, the International Office and the Careers Service and several industrial partners, in a relatively simple model that can be applied by other schools, units and institutes to readily coordinate, harmonise and invigorate common employability and upskilling objectives, which otherwise are often reliant on ad hoc initiatives.  

The graphic below illustrates the different slices which make up our various ‘pizza toppings’; each represents an area of discrete activity which falls under the responsibility of that Champion and key workers who have a vested interest in meeting targets which specifically relate to that topic. Ordinarily, overlap between these different strands of activity are non-existent, uncoordinated or transient. 

The 'pizza model' represents an area of discrete activity which falls under the responsibility of that Champion and key workers who have a vested interest in meeting targets which specifically relate to that topic.

The unique aspect of our model is that these Champions are afforded a platform to come together as our Working Group and thus common objectives can be discussed, streamlined and enriched as a result of the input of the different strands of expertise; meanwhile seemingly disparate problems can be tackled consistently and more imaginatively by drawing on the broader experience of members from across the wider campus services.  

Tip 3. Use pilot projects to showcase examples of what change might look like  

A year after SNES was created, we launched our first Skills Week which included the inaugural (and optional) ‘SNES Enterprise Challenge’ where students worked in interdisciplinary teams to tackle a one-day challenge set by the company (AkzoNobel), culminating in them making a final ‘Dragon’s Den’ pitch to a panel of academic and industry experts: 

"I'd never really experienced the power of teamwork like I did today, it was absolutely brilliant. Everyone worked together and we ended up coming-up with ideas we didn’t even know existed and meeting people in industry which I’d not really had a lot of experience of.”  

The success of this initiative was important for two complimentary reasons, (i) it provided a visible example of impact that the fledgling EEWG was capable of delivering, and (ii) it reduced the element of the unknown for those responsible for managing the education provision in the School. 

Tip 4. Follow-up on pilot projects to deliver enduring change in the syllabus and curriculum 

One long-lasting impact from the Enterprise Challenge has been the creation of our Stage 2 Sustainable Solutions module, whereby businesses pitch industrial challenges focusing on wider societal and environmental impact issues to over 300 Stage 2 students from the agricultural, biological, chemical, environmental and marine sciences.  

Our Industry, Employability, Digital Literacy and Placements Champions help build the necessary relationships and bring industry on to campus; one company on our Industrial Advisory Board was a participant, so again the theme of collaboration is promoted. A subsequent uplift in student numbers wanting an industrial placement was observed (from 30 to 83) and 100 1:1 careers appointments were completed with the first cohort, compared with 45 the previous year.  

“At the start of this module I was unsure how useful it would be but much of my day-long GSK placement interview focused on these ideas – it was the best experience and I’ve been offered the role.”  

The module also provides an opportunity to incentivise disengaged students:  

“Following the module, I met with the Employability Champion to talk about my career and summer placements. Before, I was unsure which areas I should be researching and planning to go into. All of a sudden, I have an aim and a direction and thoroughly believe this module has been the catalyst for this.”  

Further impacts have seen the introduction of the Stage 3 Professional Skills for Chemists module, where students work with different companies on challenges including intellectual property, next generation pharmaceuticals and valuing University spin-out companies and the SNES Skills and Employability Canvas site, which had over 100,000 page views in its first six weeks since launch, with 37% of SNES students accessing the community in its first week alone and which is used by EEWG members inside and outside of the School to promote SNES-tailored internships, placements and volunteering activities, and which features a live graduate jobs board focused specifically for SNES students.  


Lee Higham, Senior Lecturer, was awarded a £1million five-year EPSRC Fellowship for research on phosphorus chemistry. He secured more than £200,000 to create the School of Chemistry’s Outreach Laboratory and led its Industrial Placement and Study Abroad degree programmes. Lee is currently Academic Lead for Employability across the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences. 


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