Associate feature: Edinburgh Napier Business School on innovative learning and assisting in the economic recovery
As Dean of Edinburgh Napier Business School, Gail Boag sees the role of higher education a little differently.
She joined Edinburgh Napier University in 2018, having previously been the Director for BT Business and Public Sector in Scotland. Over a 30-year career in the private sector she’s worked with a diverse mix of organisations, from large FTSE 100 companies to small, innovative startups and voluntary bodies.
“Perhaps, it’s because I’m not an academic,” Boag tells Holyrood. “From that experience, I see higher education from a different side.”
Edinburgh Napier Business School considers itself the business school for business. It’s the largest faculty at Edinburgh Napier University, with over 5,200 undergraduate and 2,600 postgraduate students in 2019.
Innovation and external engagement have been defining aspects of Boag’s approach in the two-and-a-half years since she took up her role. In consultation with industry, she’s overseen a refresh of some of the school’s flagship courses offering to better meet the needs of businesses and social enterprises in the modern workplace.
She’s also very interested in growing and expanding delivery models, like graduate apprenticeships, parttime learning and short courses, to get people of various means and backgrounds reskilling and upskilling as we move into the era of so-called ‘Industry 4.0’.
Businesses are changing so The Business School must change and adapt too"
But of course, the impact of COVID-19 has profound implications for the delivery of higher education, just as it has with all other parts of society. Initial phases of lockdown brought the abrupt transition to remote learning for students, and universities are currently deep into the process of planning how education can return safely and effectively in a blended fashion in September.
Despite the upheavals of lockdown, though, students gave a positive endorsement in this year’s National Student Survey, which saw overall satisfaction in the Business School rise to 87 per cent.
In July the Scottish Government quoted analyses from the Scottish Funding Council in its sustainability plan for further and higher education which predicted a sector wide operating budget deficit of between £384m and £651m for the 2020-2021 academic year.
“We do not yet know to what extent these predictions will become reality but we must plan for these scenarios,” the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Richard Lochhead, said when publishing the plan.
He added, however: “We will need our colleges and universities more than ever going forward given their essential role in Scotland’s recovery.”
In June, Universities Scotland published a paper titled ‘Scotland’s Recovery - Universities’ Role’, highlighting the role higher education plays in giving people the skills needed to meet the economic challenges ahead.
Commitments outlined in the paper include: undertaking to work collaboratively to find solutions to social, economic and environmental challenges; promoting digital inclusion and designing short, flexible courses for up-skilling and re-skilling; creating postgraduate courses targeted at growth areas in the economy; and listening to businesses’ changing skills needs and helping small businesses through the strategic use of internships.
These are goals Boag is confident Edinburgh Napier Business School can play a leading role in achieving. Looking ahead to the start of what is surely a historic trimester, Boag sees opportunity both for students and for Edinburgh Napier Business School to accelerate towards pre-pandemic goals as well as to play a role in supporting Scotland’s economic recovery.
“There’s no doubt it’s a massive challenge for the sector,” Boag says.
“There are the obvious logistical challenges, but what is most important is how we make sure we continue to offer a very meaningful, engaging and applied student experience, in a blended fashion.
“But actually, I think this is a big opportunity: businesses are changing so The Business School must change and adapt too.”
The pandemic has magnified the need for institutions like Edinburgh Napier Business School to provide confident, skilled first time graduates and also to provide flexible, innovative paths to up and re-skill experienced workers, Boag thinks.
“So, it’s opened up a whole new level of opportunity for us to work with our students across the globe, to talk about business models, impact and sustainability and what that means for businesses going forward.”
“We have to step up as a higher education institution - and particularly as a business school - and use this crisis as an opportunity to work much, much closer with businesses to think about how we can support the recovery in the long term and how we can develop the talent of the future with the right skills and the right knowledge.”
That’s one of the key USPs of Edinburgh Napier University”
That close relationship working with business could already be seen in the “complete overhaul” of the school’s flagship business management undergraduate degree, a course that had already been boasting a 92 per cent employability rating.
The redesign involved sitting down with representatives from business, business leaders and students to go over the entire programme, Boag says.
“I don’t think, as far as I’m aware, that Higher Education has ever spent a huge amount of time in the business world starting with a blank sheet of paper and asking businesses ‘right, what does good, look like?’,” she says.
The newly redesigned course launches in September, offering, like many at Edinburgh Napier Business School, real-world experience through expert guest lectures, live projects or business simulations and work placements.
September also sees the launch of the new Employability Skills Programme (ESP) which aims to deliver and embed demonstrable skills in our graduates, including complex problem-solving, critical thinking, effective communication and teamwork, in recognition of the demands of employers. It is a compulsory project across all years of the undergraduate programmes and is designed to provide students with a skills audit to support their employability.
“That’s one of the key USPs of Edinburgh Napier University,” Boag says.
The School’s dual role in serving students and sector can be seen most obviously with tourism. At the top level, Edinburgh Napier Business School is helping inform the Scottish Government’s immediate response to the COVID-19 crisis’ impact on Scottish tourism. Professor Anna Leask of the tourism and languages subject group at Edinburgh Napier Business School is a member of the Scottish Government’s Tourism Recovery Taskforce, representing the further and higher education sector.
That taskforce feeds into the Scottish Tourism Emergency Response Group which the government says “will enable tourism industry bodies across Scotland to respond in a coordinated manner to the problems which result from a coronavirus”.
If we get scale and we develop this on a Scotland wide basis then we can definitely help with economic recovery"
This is a reflection of Edinburgh Napier Business School’s long-time relationship with the tourism sector, Boag says.
“We’ve built up a fantastic reputation in tourism, hospitality, festivals and events. But we’re working so closely now with the tourism sector, even closer than we did before,” she says.
The Destination Leaders Programme (DLP) is an excellent example of this close working, Boag says. Launched in 2013 and still going, in partnership with Scottish Enterprise, the short course is targeted at people and organisations in the tourism sector who have already demonstrated leadership potential.
In five day-long session over the course of six months, participants are exposed to some of the international tourism sector’s top thought-leaders so that they can pick up the skills, knowledge and networks that they need to develop their businesses and their destinations.
Reacting to Covid-19, DLP alumni created ‘DLP Assembles’ in March: including many furloughed staff to form work groups to consider the challenges facing the industry. The project resulted in recommendations across four work streams, including the launch of a new ‘Toolkit’ featuring technology solutions for visitor attractions. It is now promoted nationally via VisitScotland. Aileen Lamb of Scottish Enterprise called the DLP Alumni project an “excellent example of successful collaboration across academia, the public sector and the tourism industry.”
The response is one example of what higher education can do in today’s context, beyond the classic degree courses, Boag says.
“There’s lots of different things that higher education should be thinking about. It’s not just about undergrad, post-grad and research. It’s about engaging with industry for upskilling and reskilling and life-long learning.”
Other delivery models include graduate apprenticeships, which Boag calls a “brilliant model”, allowing students to add value to a business by studying while working. In addition, short and fully online courses allow the flexibility for working people to change career path or upskill.
“One of the biggest growth areas going forward, I would suggest, is applied learning in the form of short courses in order to upskill and reskill,” Boag says.
Considered on an individual basis, Boag says these moves may seem small given the scale of the crisis facing the country, but adds: “When you bring them all together and work hand in hand with the industry and tertiary education sector - a true partnership - then I think we can move the dial.
“If we get scale and we develop this on a Scotland wide basis then we can definitely help with economic recovery.
“And that’s what I definitely want to work on.”
Edinburgh Napier Business School’s vision is summed up as “empowerment, enterprise and employability for all,” and that hasn’t changed, Boag says.
“What that means is we will deliver high quality education that connects knowledge and skills with industry related impactful research and innovation; that develops graduates at the same time that are highly valued by employers, closing the skills gap and driving productivity and economic growth in Scotland,” she says.
“Has our new world, shaped by the pandemic changed that? Absolutely not. It has strengthened it and it has made it even more valuable.
“I think our vision is even more appropriate and important than it ever has been.”