Lahti is a growing, medium-sized city in southern Finland (and Europe’s Green Capital in 2021!) with three universities. The city is committed to supporting its universities and offers the institutions annual funding. As a developing region, Lahti is in need of more university-trained workers and more cooperation between universities, stakeholders and business life to ensure progress. In order to achieve this achieve this, the Lahti University Campus has been established. It is a network organisation, which brings together individuals, universities, interest groups and organisations, and builds bridges between universities and the region’s businesses and industry. One of our key jobs is to boost cooperation in the area.
One way to enhance this cooperation is our master’s theses accelerator model, which links students who are writing their master thesis with companies in Lahti. This is clearly a “win” for both the students and the whole region. Students receive a chance to work on interesting, real life topics and the opportunity to get in touch with potential future employers. Companies get prospects of new skills and, possibly, a fitting new employee in the future.
The model, the thesis process and its promotion are closely connected to other aspects of our universities’ collaboration with business. We found that companies should not only be offered thesis cooperation opportunities, but a whole range of academic services. In addition, the academic community should not act alone, but together with other educational institutions. Companies are seeking solutions to their problems, not a specific educational institution to cooperate with.
However, this kind of cooperation requires a lot of groundwork and so we have built a path to achieve cooperation, connecting students with business life in several ways. It is crucial to ensure there’s a real understanding and cooperation between university teachers/researchers and business life too. If teachers are not able to fully comprehend business life and company-needs, how can we expect our students to learn to do so?
The main question we asked ourselves is “What are the steps and tools to connect master`s degree students who are writing their thesis to local business life?”
Spreading the message, in surprising ways
From our experience, many companies are not fully aware of what is happening at universities. They have yet to identify the potential of what universities can offer to them, and especially what the potential can be of theses and theses writers for their growth. This is why it is important to regularly communicate with companies and spread the word about what we are doing in novel ways. We do not just reach out to them about the possibility to work with master students whose theses might play a role in the development of a company. We also connect with business about other means and benefits of collaboration with universities.
Some of the approaches we’ve been using are:
- Seasonal marketing campaigns targeted at local companies
- Setting up and sharing a database of previously completed master’s theses that are available for practical use. Companies can see what kind of themes and solutions students are able to offer.
- Creative ways to draw attention. A guide to university cooperation in the form of a notebook (which was designed like a children’s coloring book)
Giving a helping hand to companies
Companies may be interested in commissioning a thesis, but without relevant information, good intentions do not always lead to the desired outcome. Time is also a limited resource, and the development of new practices takes a great deal of effort. Companies need practical advice and support to do this, instead of just “a talk about it” in the coffee room.
Examples of useful tools that we’ve offered are:
- A guide book for companies on cooperation with educational institutions, including tips how to start the cooperation, what are the benefits, also including a lot of success stories.
- A series of video clips for teachers: How to cooperate with companies as part of studies
Giving a boost and making a match for students
Information about theses possibilities may not be enough to attract students. High-profile events and campaigns can help raise awareness of theses opportunities in the Lahti region. And these actions must be taken at an early stage, long before the student is starting work on their thesis.
This is why we have an event called Match Made in Lahti. It is a recruitment event. During the day, the students get to know Lahti on sightseeing tour, guided by well-known influencers from Lahti. The event provides companies with a great opportunity to get to know, recruit, or provide internships or theses topics for skilled people. For young professionals, a day-long recruitment event offers a unique opportunity to market their expertise and create contacts with employers in the Lahti region. “Lahti ambassadors” spice up the students’ day, presenting interesting places and stories from Lahti on the bus tour. These ambassadors jump on the bus one by one at different city stops to introduce the beat of the city to the students.
Other examples of useful solutions are:
- Regional grants and scholarships to attract attention
- Promotional videos and advertisements, marketing Lahti region as a good place to do master theses
Networks as meeting forums for universities and companies
For the benefit of master students, universities and university teachers themselves will need to be connected with business life too. Teachers and administrators can truly support the cooperation between students and business life – provided that they have personal insight into business networks. We are well aware that reaching the business sector is an arduous task. In practice, universities can only genuinely meet with companies through existing business networks and meeting forums, not by contacting each company individually and not necessarily at separate tailored events.
Useful routes that we have taken include:
- Joining existing regional networks of entrepreneurs and chambers of commerce (in our case: Päijät-Häme EntrepreneursHäme Chamber of Commerce, Lahti Region Development LADEC Ltd)
- A presence in regional seminars, webinars (in our case: Lahti Science Week, NiemiCampus Live)
Focus on building trust by working together
We’ve seen that contacts between companies and master students must be made before the beginning of thesis work. Connections can be established through cooperation, meetings and the use of reliable technical solutions from the very beginning of studies.
One good tool for us has been the Lahti Venture Program (LVP). LVP is a two-month program in which multidisciplinary teams of students seek and develop solutions for business challenges presented to them by companies operating in the Lahti region. Over the course of the program, the students spar with partners: local company representatives and entrepreneurship experts. The program familiarises students with different aspects of business operations: forming a business idea, charting customer needs and commercialising ideas. This is a great opportunity to create contacts and build networks with top companies in the region, develop business know-how and get tools for future working life.
LVP culminates in the Best Business Concept competition where teams present their work to fellow participants and judges. Each member of the winning team is awarded a monetary prize. In addition, the students may acquire traineeships or jobs at the companies.
This type of program builds trust and relationships and above all, readiness of both students and companies to collaborate. You can read more at https://lahtiventureprogram.com/. A similar kind of “tool” might be an international summer school.
Our Model was established as a part of two-year project funded by European Social Fund ESF (through the Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment of the Häme region). As the project ended, we decided to continue our work and make it an integral part of our tasks. We are certain that these relatively simple tools and models/methods of collaboration will be able to help other institutions, students and regions too – and I look forward to discussing this further with you at Online Educa Berlin.
Written by Kaisa Vuorivirta, Lahti University Campus, Finland