The University Armed Service Units

See also our project website here

Many universities in the UK have units of the three armed forces - the Officer Training Corps, the University Air Service and the University Royal Naval Unit - associated with them. Several of these are very long-standing - the very first university armed service unit was established in 1908. However, little research has been carried out into the impacts and implications of having these units within our universities. It was felt that there was a need for an independent, rigorous and methodologically reliable assessment of the 'value' of these units. Moreover, what did 'value' actually mean? We are proceeding with an understanding of value as both the benefits which accrue to graduates as a result of the skills, aptitudes and abilities which service unit participation is intended to foster, and to the benefits reaped by the armed forces because of the existence of successive cohorts of graduates with some level of understanding of the work of those armed forces. But we are also interested in the value of the USUs for graduates of the scheme who have not gone on to pursue military careers, for employers of graduates who bring USU experience to their employment, and the for universities which host the units.

This area of research interest has developed from conversations between Alison Williams and Rachel Woodward, with other members of the Northumbria Universities Military Education Committee (NUMEC), about the value of the university armed service unit experience for undergraduates. (NUMEC provides the formal link between Newcastle University and the Northumbrian Universities Officer Training Corps (NUOTC), the Northumbrian Universities Air Squadron (NUAS) and the University Royal Naval Unit (URNU). )

The value of the university armed services units

Funding awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has enabled a comprehensive study to be undertaken by a team at Newcastle University on the value of the university armed service units (USUs). This project, which ran until May 2015, explored the question of ‘value’ to five different constituencies. These are:

  • Students currently enrolled in (primarily undergraduate) programmes at British universities, who are also participants in a USU
  • Graduates of USUs, who have not gone on to pursue a military career, but who may take with them to the world of work ideas, aptitudes, skills and experience developed during their participation as undergraduates in USUs
  • Employers in a number of different labour markets in the UK, who recruit graduates, and who may (or may not) identify in their recruitments practices a value in the USU experience that some potential employees bring with them
  • The universities which host USUs
  • The three armed forces (British Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force) as parent organisations to the USUs, and the Ministry of Defence which has overall interest in the USUs

The research was conducted by a team led by Dr Alison Williams (PI), Dr Neil Jenkings (Co-I) and Prof. Rachel Woodward (Co-I). The team were advised by a steering group comprising the research team, plus representatives from the defence, tertiary employment and graduate recruitment sectors.

Our book,The Value of the University Armed Service Units has been published by Ubiquity Press, and is available for free download.

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The graduate skills agenda and the university armed services experience

This research provided an initial assessment of the question of 'value' by exploring the utility, for students, of their participation in the three university armed services units associated with the Northumbrian universities. Specifically, we focused on whether and how this participation might be useful to students in developing transferable or graduate-level skills.

This was very much an initial scoping study, to establish the picture locally. The intention is to use the findings to inform further research at a national level, and contribute to current debates within the Ministry of Defence and the three armed services about the benefits and costs of the university service units (see above for details of the ESRC project which will take this forward).

There will also be benefits of this research closer to home; Newcastle University is taking a lead in developing initiatives to support its undergraduates in their pursuit of employment, and one of the ways in which we are doing this is through our graduate skills framework. This framework maps out the employment-relevant or transferable skills that we try and inculcate in our students during their time at university, and sets out strategies for students and staff to think about how those skills might be used in the world of work.

An initial scoping study of the value of the university armed service unit experience, in terms of the development of graduate-level skills, was completed in March 2010.  This research was funded by a small grant to Dr Alison Williams from Newcastle University's Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. Drawing on interviews with the Commanding Officers of the NUOTC, the NUAS and URNU, and with a survey of participating students, the research found high levels of engagement within the units with the development of graduate skills amongst students.  This included examples of good practice in the accreditation of the university armed service unit experience, and an informed awareness of the transferable skills and aptitudes that the experience developed amongst students, particularly those of leadership, teamworking, self-confidence and adaptability.

Read the final report for this study

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