Monday Interview: Professor Kevin Kerrigan, Dean of Sheffield Business School

Professor Kevin Kerrigan joined Sheffield Hallam University in 2016 and is the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Enterprise and Dean of Sheffield Business School, which has 7,000 students studying within the faculty.

The focus of the business school is to ensure students are thoroughly prepared for the world of work by offering a blend of real, robust business scenarios to apply their theory and skills; says Kerrigan.

Recently, the business school opened an area for businesses to come into the university and interact with the students; allowing the students to pitch, persuade, debate and communicate with the real world of business across a range of disciplines.

As part of their degrees, students can commit time to businesses across the region on a consultancy basis, whereby they put their skills into practice to gain credits towards their qualifications.

Kerrigan, who qualified as a solicitor and was the executive dean for the Faculty of Business and Law at Northumbria University before his current role, said: “Students now pay £9,000 in fees, which has led to them being more career focused than they used to be. We need to be able to equip them with the skills to thrive in the world of work.”

He added that part of this learning was how to react to set-backs and disappointments in the workplace and turn them around to a success. “Businesses ask our students to look at a variety of areas, including problematic ones, which means they have looked to implement help in a whole range of areas. It could be strategic planning, logistics and supply, marketing or branding. They are supervised by expert members of staff and it means they get to build a client relationship, gain real business experience and react to changing environments.”

He said that 81% of the students undertaking consultancy work for businesses were doing so for SMEs, mainly in the Sheffield City Region. This was across manufacturers, retailers, local authorities, schools and even a football club. Kerrigan said that the economic analysis showed that the value of the projects completed in one year contributed £352,500 to the economy.

“It is great that we can provide that kind of service. That interaction with a company, where students see and feel pressure and responsibility, is essential. We can give students the opportunities to complete this work and make mistakes – reflecting on improvements and performance helps to prepare them for the future.”

Kerrigan said that Sheffield’s economy was an exciting place to be. He said: “Sheffield is a city which has suffered from the transition from heavy industry to becoming service based. For me, it means now that there is massive opportunity in Sheffield. There are 45,000 small businesses in the city region and if just a small proportion can grow, then our economy will grow massively.”

He said innovation was essential and named the digital and creative industries as being important to the economy for the future – and ones in which the current student population were very knowledgeable in.

Kerrigan added that the two universities in Sheffield, in conjunction with the SCR LEP, were helping more people in the region to access higher education to equip businesses with skills. Currently, 100 businesses are on these programmes but this will rise to 200.

He said areas including leadership development, learning how to launch new services and products to the market or how to enter completely new markets were some of the areas where people were gaining worthwhile experience.

A business hatchery has seen Sheffield Hallam students recently create 55 businesses in the region, supporting 67 full-time employees. Kerrigan said: “These are small businesses, sometimes one or two people. Some will fail but they need to be in an environment where they can take risks and see there can be benefits to failing in businesses as you have to expect set-backs and overcome them in today’s challenging markets.”

Kerrigan added that student retention in the city was essential for the economy and that the region needed to market itself better in order to compete with the likes of Birmingham, Manchester and even London.

“The city needs to find ways to engage with young graduates and get them into the city’s eco-system.

“This includes connecting them with the civic institutions in a way that they are accessing a range of networking opportunities. Only this way will they become integrate into the life of the city.”

Trade between China and the UK is a key focus for Kerrigan, with the first China-UK business incubator set to open in Sheffield in 2019. And of the students that complete a full year of placement in a workplace as part of their degree, he said they return to their final year of study “full of inquisitiveness.”

“They then have practical suggestions to share; their performance in studies is then much better – they are more satisfied. And overall, they go on to secure much better jobs.”

Placement companies have been across the globe for students in recent years, including at firms like Disney, Nike, HSBC and Marriott hotels.

Of the skills gap concerns being raised by businesses in recent years, Kerrigan said it was essential for public and private businesses to work ever closer to address the issues and ensure that graduates are receiving the very best preparation as business needs evolve.

Apprenticeship levies have also led to businesses putting forward employees for higher education opportunities to invest in their future leaders and talent,  which Kerrigan said was helping business to navigate and adapt as new skills needed to be brought into the workplace. “It’s all essential for career development,” he added.