Matthew Dean is the Global Director of International Recruitment, Aston University, Birmingham, United Kingdom, established in 1895. In an interview session during the university’s Alumni party in Nigeria, Dean stressed the need for students to acquire employability skills in addition to academic knowledge acquired. According to him, the ecosystem of the educational system is well funded in the UK. Excerpt
Tell us Aston University and why are you in Nigeria?
Aston University is a public institution based in Birmingham. It is one of the three main universities in the city, we are ranked among the top 25 universities in the UK and one of the best universities in the world particularly for business, which is ranked top100 in the world. We have a lot of Nigerian students who have come to study at Aston University over the last 20 to 30years.
We are here to talk to students that are interested in coming and studying at Aston in Birmingham. It’s really good time to study at the UK at the moment because not only are we post-pandemic, we are moving back to normal, teaching is returning face to face as many of our students will be coming to campus this year but the UK government also recently announced the graduate immigration route visa for students that graduate from our fulltime under-graduate and post-graduate degree, which means that after they complete the study, they can do two years of work in the UK, they can stay back in the UK and work. So, the opportunity is there for students who are really motivated to stay back and work in the UK.
Aston offers placement opportunity, that is, the opportunity to get some work experience. If you are an undergraduate student, that means you can work for one year as part of your degree program. So, you study for two years and do one year work placement and then you do your final year. So, it gives you both academic skills and the ability to get some work experience, it gives you a step ahead in the job market. We all know that it is a very competitive job market, and so it is not good enough to have only your academic study, you also need the employability skills.
How many Nigerian students have you had?
In the last one year for example, we have recruited about 400 students from Nigeria. So, we want to have a mixture of students from all over the world and not just from Nigeria alone.
How will you describe an average Nigerian student?
Well, some of the Nigerian students we have got turned out to be the best we have seen at Aston. If you consider the education system in the UK, it is quite different from what is obtainable in Nigeria. It is more practical and one unique thing about the school is that most of our lecturers are people who have got that industry experience, we are the first university in the UK to offer work placement as part of learning experience to students. So, when they come, you see that excitement and eagerness to explore what they are taught in the classroom and to explore those opportunities that are available at Birmingham and at Aston. We have got 50years of experience working with companies and getting students into those companies, so it’s nothing new to Aston to be an employability purpose university. So that’s the basic thing that makes us different from others, we are more hands-on.
Does the university offer scholarship to international students?
Yes, we offer lots of scholarship opportunities to our students to abridge the cost of the fee. Each year we spend over 2million pounds to cover for scholarship costs across the globe and not just in Nigeria. It was increased to 3million pounds this year. So, for Nigerian students studying with us, they can enjoy between 3,000pounds to 10,500pounds scholarship. In fact, last year, a Nigerian student won our enterprise scholarship which is a fully funded scholarship. This year, few Nigerians made the second-round shortlisting for the enterprise scholarship. We have the Alan Ferguson scholarship which gives 10,500pounds scholarship. So, this brings the fee to about 50percent of what we normally charge. So, the scholarship goes to students that are academically qualified and motivated. We are not just interested in academic merit; we want students that are really motivated to come use the opportunities that we offer to the university and within the city to do well. They won’t just go to students that are average students.
There is also the Vice Chancellor’s scholarship, which is 8,000pounds and in the last one month, we have awarded that to two to three Nigerian students. Most of our scholarships are academically based, but there are a few that are targeted at Nigerians which we call the regional scholarship just to support students from Nigeria and other students studying at Aston. We expect them to fulfill all conditions on their offer then we award the scholarship. We have another scholarship called the global ambassador, for that we look for students that have the ability to work in our marketing, advertising, or sales team. Students who are awarded the global ambassador’s scholarship for example, have a good chance of being given a work opportunity while working with us as a student ambassador. We have employed so many Nigerians who are studying with us and are making money. So, like I said we don’t just bring them, we give them this scholarship so they can work with us as part of their learning experience at Aston.
Another thing that stands us out is the Aston global advantage at the post graduate level, when students study with us especially in the business school, they can take four streams, one of it is work placement, we help prepare them with their CV, the way CV are written in Nigeria is different from what is obtainable in the UK. So, we’ve got a strong career service and placement that helps with their CV right from the first week they come to campus, and we pitch them with potential employers. So as part of the Aston global advantage, students can choose to do one year work placement or Aston business clinic, which is a virtual internship, and this is not paid for. It is three months but what we have seen is that many students that have been part of the Aston business clinic have got a chance to get work experience and placement with some of these organizations, and then, there is a study abroad exchange program where students have the chance to have a double degree as part of their learning experience at Aston. These are some of the things that makes us unique from other universities.
For a university that gives so many scholarships, what is the welfare of staff like?
The average salary in the UK is high as a professor earns well over 100,000pounds a year while a junior lecturer is on 30,000pounds – 35,000pounds a year. So, the ecosystem of our education is well funded. The government has just announced a research funding, so there are 1.27 billion pounds of government funding that goes to universities for research. UK universities are generally very well funded by the government, they also have commercial links and student recruitment. So, there is generally a well-funded sector and that’s good for students because it creates an environment where they can have all the opportunities alongside their study.
Are there plans to have a linkage with any Nigerian University?
Currently, we have a partnership with the University of Lagos (UNILAG), just before the COVID-19 lockdown, we held a meeting with the Deputy Vice Chancellor and the international linkage office at UNILAG. We have a standing Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Chartered Institute of Personnel Management (CIPM) in Nigeria, and for every student who study Human Resource Management (HRM) at Aston for example, they have got 74percent exemption from CIPM, which means after their study with us, they will probably write just one paper with us to qualify to be a full HR practitioner in Nigeria. Also, we held meetings with TETFUND in 2020 before the lockdown and the National University Commission (NUC) as well. So, we are looking at expanding our reach in Nigeria, working closely with universities and touching on the accreditation, almost every UK course is accredited by professional bodies, and we are trying to add more Nigerian accreditations as well, so that students can at least get one accreditation depending on the course.
Can you share with us how Aston university handles industrial actions by both academic and non-academic staff?
There is not much industrial action in the UK anymore. Generally, if you look at political history, a lot changed during the 80s and we don’t have any strike action anymore and the ability of the union to strike in the union is limited.
This was achieved through one person named Margaret Thatcher, she went through a process in the 1980s to take on the unions and the unions are much weaker now because of that. So, we don’t have strike actions regularly in the UK, and when we do, it will only last for about two days, it never last for more than a few days. I know why you asked this question; it is because in Nigeria at the moment you have a long strike. Maybe back in the UK it was similar during the 1970s, it was Margaret Thatcher that took on the unions and so it’s a very different situation now in the UK. If students come over, they don’t need to worry about strike action, it’s not common on university campuses, and if we have it. its literally for a couple of days.
You have painted a robust picture of the university, what are the challenges being faced?
The challenge is on the individual level, in the UK if you come for a master’s degree, it is for 12months, it’s a very quick process. There is a lot of work to do because it is an intense and busy period. UK is not the place to be if you just want to relax, you need to work hard, the opportunities won’t just fall on your plate but for students who are motivated and want to work hard, that want to take advantage of the opportunities . So, it’s more of a personal challenge, if the student is a goal getter and wants to work hard, they are the ones to get a great career. If you are not that kind of student, then it would be a bit tough because it’s not just a merry merry party thing, they need to work hard to get that qualification as every student must fulfill a certain number of attendance in classroom; if they don’t, their visa gets canceled, and if they fail any course module twice or thrice, they are asked to withdraw from the program. So, the students need to work hard to get that qualification. For the post study work visa that everybody is celebrating, if a student fails to graduate when he / she is supposed to, he cannot get the post study work visa, and they will have to return to their country, so they are not coming to the UK to come and play, they come to work and earn that qualification. Companies will be in the UK looking at how well they have done on that Degree program, so they need to think about that, it’s not just about guaranteeing them a job, there is a competition in life, in finding a good job, there is competition, so, if they come with the right mindset, we will give them the best opportunity.