Digital skills have become invaluable in the modern working world. As such, ensuring that young people leave education fully equipped with the relevant digital skills set is crucial

In an interview with Total Telecom, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Staffordshire University, Professor Martin Jones, shared his insights into the role that universities have to play in addressing the UK’s digital divide. He also shared his insights into how Staffordshire University is leading the way with its innovative digital course offerings and the University’s key role in contributing to the local economies of Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire.

Staffordshire’s digital course offerings
As the first institution in the UK to offer computing as a degree scheme in the 1960s, it’s fair to say that Staffordshire University has a track record when it comes to appreciating digitalisation. The University’s current course portfolio now boasts numerous cutting-edge subjects, including esports, gaming, cybersecurity, film production and visual effects. Approximately 40–45% of the current student population is enrolled on a computing-based course, accounting for over 4,000 students.
However, it’s not just the courses that are unique. 
“What Staffordshire University is known for…is the relationship between the digital, the technical and academia-industry,” says Martin. “Every university on the planet would claim to be digital, but what we do is then tie it to the technical skills and technical education through applied degree schemes. But also we do that in partnership with industry and employers.”
Due to open in the next academic year, the Catalyst Building, a £42 million development on the Stoke-on-Trent campus, will act as a “digital skills and apprenticeships hub”, adding to the University’s impressive facilities.
In 2018/19, Staffordshire University was among the top three UK institutions for graduate employability, an achievement that Martin attributes to students being equipped with “directly transferrable digital skills that are relevant to the workplace.” 
Retaining local talent
In addition to supporting its students in developing the skills needed for successful careers, the University is also playing an important role in building Staffordshire’s digital sector and contributing to the local economy. 
Although there are some big digital players headquartered in Staffordshire, the local economy is predominantly made up of small and medium sized firms. 
“There’s a risk, given the Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent economy, that the best graduates might get poached and end up in cities like Birmingham, Manchester and London. It’s not often the case, but we’re aware of it and are trying to retain those skills and talent,” says Martin. Creating a reason for digital graduates to stay in Staffordshire long-term is part of the University’s “civic responsibility for the local economy,” he adds.
Investment for digital skills
“What lockdown has taught me in my role…is the fact that digital skills are more important than ever for Covid socio-economic recovery,” says Martin. “We really want to be alongside the local government, driving that digital skills agenda.”
The University is currently in talks with Stoke-on-Trent City Council and Staffordshire County Council on how funding from the Community Renewal Fund, part of the UK government’s Levelling Up Fund, could be invested to help build the region’s digital footprint.
Funding has already been secured by the University from the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (of which Martin is a Director) for a key project called the ‘Collaboratory’. Located at the University’s Stoke-on-Trent campus, the ‘Collaboratory’ is a technology enabled space where students will have a chance to innovate and to work alongside local enterprises to find solutions to problems and bring ideas to life.
Local growth strategy
Although the UK government has scrapped the Industrial Strategy, Staffordshire University and its partners are still working around their local strategy. The University’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Liz Barnes CBE DL, currently chairs the LEP’s Future Work Group, which recently highlighted that the need for digital skills in Staffordshire has accelerated over the past 12 months.
According to Martin, “16% of the working population in Staffordshire work in logistics. That’s everything from warehousing to distribution to automation. So, I think the University has a responsibility to grow that digital expertise around the economy locally.”
Staffordshire University is also working in conjunction with a number of local partners and employers to bring 5G connectivity to the region. In October 2020, key stakeholders submitted a £250 million Growth Deal proposal to the UK government titled “Staffordshire Connected Region Growth Deal: Jobs, Innovation, Education, Regional Growth, Wealth, Health & Prosperity”.
Collaboration is key
When asked what the key to the Staffordshire region’s success in establishing itself as a national leader in technology and innovation is, Martin’s response was clear: collaboration is the key. 
“We work in partnership with the whole range of civic society and business. All of those partners are represented either on the Board of the University or in the relationships that we have,” said Martin. “We are in open dialogue. The University’s senior management sit on all of these local partnership boards and committees. So we are embedded in the locality…We are genuinely a civic university.” 
Bridging the digital divide and promoting the importance of digital skills is a key subject at this year’s Connected Britain event. Connected Britain will be taking place on 21st and 22nd September at the Business Design Centre in London. Head to the event website for more information on how to get involved.