Education

UCP: Tech savvy

Peterborian Maciej Kazimierek knew he wanted a career in IT – but where best to study? The answer, it turned out, was right on his doorstep. The Moment looks at the BSc (Hons) Computing and Information Systems degree at University Centre Peterborough (UCP) and discovers how its industry connections can help kick-start a career

In October 2019, Maciej Kazimierek started his new job. ‘I’m now with a company called Hive Learning based in London,’ he explains, ‘working on development of learning technologies.’ It’s pretty much his dream job. Nothing so unusual in that, perhaps, except that Maciej only graduated in September. Stepping straight into a career from university is a trick most students would love to master – so how did he do it? Maciej’s degree, the BSc (Hons) in Computing and Information Systems offered by UCP was certainly a great start in terms of knowledge and experience, but it turns out there was rather more to it than this.

‘I was a little bit lucky…’ he says. ‘Alex Shaw, Chief Technology Officer at Hive, came to UCP in May when we were presenting our final-year projects.’ Maciej’s project was related to exactly the kind of e-content that he is now working on at Hive. Alex saw it, liked it, and said he’d be in touch after the summer. ‘In August I got a call asking if I’d still be interested in applying for a job. I was, so did the interview and got it! Obviously, that really helped me get into the industry even though I had very little experience.’ Despite Maciej’s modest claim that he was ‘lucky’, this opportunity did not come about just by chance. Such opportunities are built into the fabric of the course thanks to its close ties with the industry, and Maciej is by no means an isolated case.

“That really helped me get into the industry even though I had very little experience”

The most recent batch of graduates have achieved a 100% employment rate for the degree, and over the years several have been snapped up by Alex Shaw to work as part of his team – first at Compare the Market, within the BGL Group, and then at Hive. ‘There’s actually a catalogue of people I have hired from UCP,’ he says. ‘I’ve currently got three UCP graduates in my team. It’s a great way to build engagement.’

That engagement has proved critical not only to the success of students, but also to the continued relevance of the degree, as course leader Jamie Myland, explains: ‘We revamped the course in 2016. We had an old version of the course which was getting a bit dated, and we wanted to get it up to date to meet what industry was looking for.’ To achieve that, Jamie’s department at UCP worked closely with a range of local companies, including Compare the Market, where Alex was then based. ‘Some of them actually came to the validation panel and helped us develop that course. That allowed us to introduce not just the software skills that they’re looking for in students, but also soft skills, team communication and what’s expected in the modern workplace for software developers and network engineers.’

“That allowed us to introduce not just the software skills that they’re looking for in students, but also soft skills, team communication and what’s expected in the modern workplace for software developers and network engineers”

These skills have been embedded throughout the course, especially at levels five and six (ie in the degree’s second and third years). ‘Level four is more about developing academic skills, making sure everyone has a good foundation, but into level five we look at the full employability process. In the second semester, there’s a group design project, and we actually have students apply for roles within that project as if it was applying for an actual job.’ UCP advertises the jobs on its internal network and then students actually put together a CV and covering letter and get interviewed for the role, so it’s treated like a real job application. ‘Students then have to demonstrate some employability skills to show they can actually work as a team and contribute to a wider web system.’

At level six, in the final year, this is taken even further. ‘We have modules that involve developing ethical professional skills, which is all about making sure people are ready for the real world, looking at both the legal and ethical aspect of how you contribute towards computing in society. And then there is a team-based module which focuses on Agile project management to make sure that they can contribute to that type of project effectively.’ All the other modules contain elements of employability skills within them as well. ‘We’re constantly trying to relate what students are doing to how they would do it in the real world,’ says Jamie.

“Students then have to demonstrate some employability skills to show they can actually work as a team and contribute to a wider web system”

The connection with the job market was ‘definitely one of the key factors’ for Maciej when he was making his university choices – but the structure of the course has also helped guide him towards the career that was best for him, even when he wasn’t entirely sure what that was. ‘When I started I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do at the end of it. Obviously I wanted to work in IT but didn’t know which area. Having multiple modules in the first two years definitely helped me to decide where I felt comfortable and also understand where there were likely to be job opportunities.’

Despite this broad scope and the ability to choose and combine different modules – ultimately allowing students to tailor their own course to their specific interests – the degree is careful not to overwhelm students with choices at the start. ‘The first year is quite broad in that it covers most of the foundational computing topics,’ says Jamie. ‘We have college students that come to us straight from college and from schools with A-levels, but we also have quite a lot of students that come to us wanting a change of career as more mature students, who maybe don’t have the immediate computing experiences some students from college have had.’

“We have quite a lot of students that come to us wanting a change of career as more mature students, who maybe don’t have the immediate computing experiences some students from college have had”

That first year has fewer choices than subsequent years, but acts as a foundation to get everybody up to speed on the basics. In the second year, when students have found their feet and begun to identify their areas of interest, the real choices start. ‘We have some modules that everybody does, such as the advanced databases and interactive web development, but then we have optional modules that delve deeper into hardware and advanced programming. We have some additional cyber security modules in there as well, which is such a big topic now.’ Overall, the degree features 16 optional modules to mix and match. In the third year students also get to do their final year projects. ‘Basically, they produce something that shows the skills they’ve developed and advances them even further, along with a dissertation to analyse and explain what they’ve done.’

This involves students setting out their stalls (quite literally) in the atrium of the University Centre to present their work to invited employers from around the city. ‘That gives a really good opportunity for employers to come and see what students are actually doing, and we’ve had quite a lot who have had job interview offers or actual job offers directly out of that day.’ This was where Maciej met Alex, and ultimately got his current job at Hive. ‘That’s why I took the opportunity for the dissertation project very seriously,’ he says, ‘because I knew that when we presented what we’d created there would be people from the industry looking at it, who were looking for new prospects. So I prepared for that.’

“That gives a really good opportunity for employers to come and see what students are actually doing, and we’ve had quite a lot who have had job interview offers or actual job offers directly out of that day”

This is an arrangement that works, it seems, for everyone – boosting students’ employment prospects, strenghtening UCP’s course integrity and giving Alex and others like him the bright new minds their businesses need in order to flourish. But for Alex, this is about much more than just snapping up new employees at the end of the degree. He’s one of several key professionals who have been with it all the way. ‘In terms of my professional capacity, I’ve been involved with UCP for about five years,’ he explains, ‘starting back when I worked for Compare the Market in the BGL Group.’

He was then running an engineering team of about 150, but had about 30 vacancies for software engineers that he just couldn’t fill. He tried recruitment agencies – which, generally, were not local – and it just wasn’t working. ‘Most agencies were telling us that Peterborough didn’t have the software engineers and wasn’t a great tech hub. I didn’t believe that for one second, so I set out to prove them wrong!’ Alex came up with his own plan for engaging the local community and finding great people to hire. ‘We started a tech community, of which there are now a couple. We started engaging with schools, but we also went and talked to the university about their computer science courses.’ And this, of course, was how the dialogue with Jamie Myland at UCP began – one which has continued to this day.

“Most agencies were telling us that Peterborough didn’t have the software engineers and wasn’t a great tech hub. I didn’t believe that for one second”

‘UCP were really open to engaging with businesses by adapting what students were learning so they could incorporate much more relevant elements direct from the industry. They looked at their course over a number of years, changed things, introduced new techniques to align closer to our business. That meant that when students came from university they were much closer to our needs. Their staff also came in to spend some time with us, and we offered them free work placements, we offered summer placements for the students and we ran engagements with the staff where they would give lectures and present case studies. The idea was really about closing the gap.’

This was not just a one-way street, either. ‘It also gave our employees the opportunity to grow by helping to share and learn and teach with the students, and present to students, which helped them with their own personal growth. It’s not often that you get that level of engagement from academia. It creates work for them to do that, but they were really open to it. I have massive respect for UCP.’

“Their staff also came in to spend some time with us, and we offered them free work placements”

Jamie and his fellow academic staff have worked hard to maintain and make use of those ties in a whole variety of ways, helping to arrange graduate schemes, organising guest speakers and even providing the opportunity for students to attend international conferences covering cutting-edge developments. Smaller class sizes at UCP also mean that there’s more direct one-to-one contact, so tutors really get to know their students’ needs; ask Maciej what he most valued about the course and he says simply: ‘The people’.

For Alex, this dialogue between academia and business is critical – perhaps more so in computing than any other sector. ‘One of the challenges that we have is that the industry moves incredibly rapidly. Everyone in IT knows that everything they learned five years ago is wrong! That makes it very difficult for academia to keep up with the latest trends and also know what are the right things to teach, and the only way that businesses can help both students and academic institutions stay current is by engaging with them. It is absolutely the responsibility of business to do that, because I don’t know an industry that isn’t screaming out for more great people. But if you do it, the result that I am seeing time and again is that what comes out of university is much closer to the way of thinking, working and being that you really want to have in your business. So it massively pays back. I haven’t paid a recruitment consultant for anyone in my team for years.’

“One of the challenges that we have is that the industry moves incredibly rapidly”

And for proof of that payback, there’s the all-important end of degree presentation where Alex met Maciej. ‘I’ve been to that every single year for the last five or six years,’ says Alex. ‘It’s a great chance for us to talk to the students and see what they’re doing and what their ideas are, and Maciej was one of them. We were really interested in the technologies he’d used in his dissertation project because they were really close to what we were using in our platform.’ A few months in and things are going well for Maciej. Asked where he sees himself in years to come, he laughs. ‘I’m very happy where I am. But this is a fantastic place to start.’

Alex seems pretty happy with his new employee, too. ‘The future’s really rosy for him. What Maciej has is humility, passion, enthusiasm and a love of what he does. It shines through in every day he’s in the office. He’s smiling, he’s learning, he’s questioning, he’s pushing us all the time to give him more work and to help him learn faster. He has a really positive attitude, and he’s learning at a rate that is awesome for his age. That is exactly what I want out of a junior at that level. Every year UCP produces students of this kind of calibre, and that’s what I want in my team – people who can crack on and get stuff done.’

BSC (HONS) COMPUTING AND INFORMATION SYSTEMS ● Accredited by: Anglia Ruskin University ● Location: University Centre Peterborough ● Duration and Delivery: Full-time 3 years (2-3 full days a week over two semesters per year); part-time 4 years (1-2 full days a week over two semesters per year)

● Start Date: January 2020, September 2020 or January 2021.

The first UCAS deadline is 6pm on 15th January 2020. If you miss the first UCAS deadline, you can still apply through UCAS Extra from 25th February to 5th July 2020. From 6th July 2020 you can apply via UCAS through Clearing. UCP will be holding Applicant Days for new students in March and April 2020. ● If you have any questions about making an application contact the Admissions Office on 01733 214466 or email ● Before you apply, please check that you meet the entry requirement which is listed on the course information pages.

www.ucp.ac.uk

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