Professor Mike Weed sets out the University’s commitment to the Kent and Medway economy during and beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

The re-opening of pubs and restaurants, together with many other businesses and community activities, serves as a reminder that the Kent and Medway economy is driven by SMEs, tourism, hospitality and the creative industries, as well as a growing science and innovation sector. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis has driven an enhanced respect and gratitude for our health, education and public service workforce, and for workers, small businesses and volunteers that have kept us going throughout lockdown, delivering supplies and support as we distance, shield and isolate at home. With a heritage and mission rooted in supporting the needs of the local and regional economy, Canterbury Christ Church University is committed to playing an essential and influential role in supporting the industries, sectors and communities we serve to survive and thrive during and beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

Keeping Kent and Medway going during COVID-19

Established to address a shortage of teachers in the 1960s there is now barely a school in Kent and Medway that does not have a Canterbury Christ Church University graduate on its staff. Our subsequent growth into a multi-subject university of 17,000 staff and students means that the region’s NHS workforce is boosted by Christ Church nurses, midwives, occupational therapists, radiographers, paramedics and other health and allied professions, whilst Christ Church lawyers, entrepreneurs, designers, journalists, creatives, scientists, chemists and engineers will help drive Kent and Medway’s post-COVID growth.

COVID-19 placed major pressures on NHS capacity, and as workforce needs grew more urgent we accelerated the accreditation of our students to go into practice, released and seconded staff to rejoin the NHS workforce, and provided auxiliaries and other support staff via our Unitemps employment agency. We donated our PPE supplies to the health and social care sectors, and our Engineering, Design, Growth and Enterprise (EDGE) Hub provided open source designs for PPE to enable small businesses and many schools to use their 3D printers to produce face masks and visors to support the COVID-19 response.

As schools moved to remote delivery, we developed a range of online resources to support lockdown learning. We provided training, support and advice to teachers in distance learning techniques and technologies, and developed a set of new and bespoke resources to help parents to support their children to learn at home, including STEM@Home ideas and activities, with weekly themes including dinosaurs, space, energy and structures.

For many businesses, particularly Kent and Medway’s SME community, COVID-19 has been an anxious and isolating time. We have continued to support our business networks, providing connections and connectivity during lockdown to deliver both social and practical support. We have linked our business networks with funding sources, as well as match-making demand for products and services to SMEs able to provide them. We have also supported our third sector partners to find volunteers, both from our own community of staff and students, and from the local furloughed workforce. Our Unitemps employment agency has supported business clients to furlough staff, whilst our creative students have produced promotional videos for local and regional SMEs to promote their existing and adapted services during lockdown.

Supporting the Economy to Survive and Thrive post COVID-19

But what of the future? How will we support the industries, sectors and communities we serve to survive and thrive as the economy and society cautiously re-opens?

We are proud to be the largest supplier of graduate skills and talent to the Kent and Medway economy, with 14,000 Christ Church graduates having joined the local and regional workforce in the last five years. In fact, the most recent data shows that Christ Church is in the top ten universities in the country for getting graduates into work, with the Kent and Medway economy being the primary beneficiary.

Skills needed in the post COVID-19 economy will be different. Many people will be looking to retrain for new careers, and to support this our newly launched Graduate College has been developing its portfolio of post-graduate provision and short courses to help people connect with industries and sectors with new skills needs, and to help businesses re-develop their workforces for a new normal. 

We are also linking with our partners in further education to provide an integrated apprenticeship offer that can serve both those entering the workforce and those adjusting to new workforce needs. 

Our new Gradforce initiative provides an enhanced headhunting and post-employment support service to ensure local SME recruitment needs are matched to the right graduates, and we have recently adapted this package to ensure that graduates enter the SME workforce with the most up to date digital skills to support new ways of working.

With an ambition to come back better, the economy will seek to deploy the best of science innovation to support green growth. As a winner of successive Green Gown Awards for sustainability, we have committed to action to address the climate emergency, and we will ramp up our science and technology provision to support sustainable growth.

A major new facility hosting new courses, research and enterprise across engineering and sciences opens on our Canterbury Campus in 2021, and will link with our innovation hubs embedded throughout Kent and Medway, including our industry liaison laboratory at Discovery Park in Sandwich, our Institute of Medical Sciences at Medway, and exciting new future education and innovation provision as part of Ebbsfleet Garden City’s Health and Education Innovation Quarter. In addition, the Kent and Medway Medical School, which we have developed jointly with the University of Kent, will open its doors in the Autumn, providing the largest area of the country previously without a medical school with the means to train and retain a vital clinical workforce.

As people and families emerge from lockdown, there will be an enhanced focus on health, community and wellbeing. To this end our University Research Centres will be at the forefront of national initiatives to support schoolchildren and families to lead active and fulfilling lives as schools and work return, informing initiatives such as Change 4 Life, educational transition strategies, and the role of arts and music in supporting health and wellbeing for all ages.

In supporting success in a new normal, the ambition and mission of Canterbury Christ Church University is to be essential to the local and regional economy, and influential in ensuring we grow back better.

Professor Mike Weed is Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise.