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While higher education (HE) is often framed as a vehicle for social mobility, there has emerged a paradoxical situation of graduates ending up in roles that do not match their educational achievements (ONS, 2019). To ensure that new graduates have the skill sets beyond disciplinary knowledge, there have been calls to embed employer engagement as part of HE delivery. Most notably, Leitch’s 2006 skills review frames employer engagement as crucial to ensuring innovation and workforce development (HM Treasury, 2006). The few reports published on employer engagement point towards workforce development and economic regeneration (QAA, 2014; HEFCE, 2015), and there are indications that educational collaboration between employers and HE can address issues in graduate pipelines (Thayaparan et al., 2014). That said, it is less clear how beneficial the collaboration is for businesses. While 61 per cent of surveyed academics assumed that knowledge exchange provided businesses with improved skills for innovation, only 21 per cent of surveyed businesses hold the same assumption (HEFCE, 2015). Hence, the question of what motivates employers to engage in diverse activities from curriculum planning to consultancy is left somewhat unanswered.

In our discussion, we draw on the notion of knowledge exchange as knowledge seeking and sharing (Wang & Noe, 2010), as it provides us with a lens to capture the skills and knowledge that motivate employees to engage in educational collaboration. The empirical context for our project is Pearson College London which offers degrees in visual effects, animation, games and business management. The college was successful in securing a two-year grant from the Office for Students and Research England for a project entitled Work Integrated Learning: Sustainable models for student-industry engagement. The project focuses on evaluating the benefits of student–industry engagement and on identifying sustainable practice in incorporating educational collaboration with employers into degree curriculum and assessment. In this blog, we draw on 16 evaluation interviews with 14 employers ranging from multinational corporations (MNCs) to start-ups and an additional eight industry interviews on our pilot scheme which sought to test different models of industry engagement – from employer briefs for assessments to Dragon’s Den-type competitions to identify good practice in educational collaboration.

Our initial analysis suggests that the motivations for employers to engage in educational collaboration can be summarised as: (i) access to fresh perspectives and (ii) early career workforce while (iii) proving opportunities for employer brand management and (iv) both internal and external talent development. An example of knowledge exchange in the form of fresh perspectives was a Q&A session with students in which the industry partner gained insights into inclusivity which they could not readily access within their organisations. The second theme of early career workforce appears particularly advantageous for small and medium-sized organisations and start-ups. Due to their small staff base, consultancy projects provide entrepreneurs with access to vital workforce and research resources, as confirmed by interviewees. Employer brand management and internal and external talent development seem to align better with the needs of MNCs and creative industries, which require a sustainable talent pipeline that attracts new talent while providing opportunities for continuous development for those already employed.

‘The theme of early career workforce appears particularly advantageous for small and medium-sized organisations and start-ups.’

Due to the small sample size, we do not claim that our results are decisive. That said, our findings point out the limitations in assuming that skills development singularly motivates employees to take part in educational collaboration. Our findings indicate that the type and size of business as well as industry shape what industry partners expect from engaging with higher education institutions. Hence, the sustained enhancement of university–industry partnerships requires that the different stakeholder motivations are identified correctly. By doing so, stakeholder benefits can be optimised, and we can provide students with opportunities that might lead to improved social mobility.


Higher Education Funding Council for England [HEFCE]. (2015). Evaluating the non-monetised achievements of the Higher Education Innovation Fund.

HM Treasury. (2006). Prosperity for all in the global economy: World class skills (Final report, Leitch review).

Office for National Statistics [ONS]. (2019). Overeducation and hourly wages in the UK labour market; 2006 to 2017.

Quality Assurance Agency [QAA]. (2014). Employer engagement emerging practice from QAA reviews.

Thayaparan M., Malalgoda C., Keraminiyage K., & Amaratunga, D. (2014). Disaster management education through higher education–industry collaboration in the built environment. Procedia Economics and Finance, 1(18), 651–658. 

Wang, S., & Noe, R. (2010). Knowledge sharing: A review and directions for future research. Human Resource Management Review, 20(2), 115–131.