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From minor to major: Sheffield the ‘elearning capital of Europe’


At first glance it is perhaps an unlikely contender, yet Sheffield is shouting its merits loudly and is fast becoming the elearning capital of Europe. Annie Hayes talks to the experts behind Sheffield's transformation as an ehub.

The digital campus
The creative and digital industries in Sheffield: The stats
  • Employs over 20,000 people

  • 32% employment growth in five years to 2005

  • Over 3,000 companies

  • 88% of companies forecasting growth in the next 12 months

  • Over 200 new start businesses since 2000
  • Source: James Wilson, investment manager, Creative Sheffield

    Creative Sheffield, the outfit behind Sheffield's digital campus is very proud of its developments to date. James Wilson, its investment manager, says the company has been charged with both the build and promotion: "Our office buildings are targeted at the creative, digital and IT sector companies. They're the most up to date spaces with broadband connectivity and fibre provision." The master plan has been carefully crafted to provide an excellent working environment through to integrated knowledge hubs designed to spark collaboration between companies on the site.

    The campus is located in front of Sheffield's train station which David Patterson, head of partnerships at Learning Light tells me was a deliberate move: "These companies do a lot of business in London and the South East so it is very important to be near to transport links." It's also close to Sheffield's bus station. The space will be home to more than 3,000 creative and digital industries sector workers."

    Creating a buzz

    The first phase, Electric Works, aims to attract companies to its 50,000 square feet of flexible workspace while the second building is underway. Toby Hyam, managing director at Creative Space Management tells me that the Electric Works site is aimed at providing a 'grow on' environment to incubators and start-up businesses that are in their next stage: "Typically we'll be attracting companies that have three to four full-time members of staff with a half to five million pound turnover."

    Electric Works is in its final stage of construction and Hyam says that 15% of the space is already reserved: "We'd expect to fill the space to full occupancy within two years." Hyam's outfit is not immune to the downturn and he has crafted a strategy to help these businesses be as flexible as possible: "We're offering one-year agreements with a months' notice. You can move in within 24 hours. It can make all the difference to some businesses, there's no changing telephone numbers and we try to make the trading conditions as viable as possible."

    Why Sheffield?

    "It is a great day for Sheffield to have this important piece of infrastructure coming on line, creating a fantastic new space for the growth of our creative and digital companies."

    Ian Bromley, chief executive, Creative Sheffield

    According to Wilson, Sheffield has been quietly plugging away at its status as an elearning hub since the 80s when large numbers of civil servants were relocated there to work on education and skills. Learndirect took up residence and became established as the largest elearning department in Europe: "They've been purchasing elearning content ever since and a cluster of suppliers has built around them." Yet Hyam believes it goes back even further than that: "There has been a creative culture since after the war. The cluster of elearning-related businesses with design expertise provides a powerful combination with the existing and brilliant universities – Sheffield is very strong in the further education sector."

    Hyam doesn't deny the link with Learndirect which he describes as being very 'potent' but says that calling Sheffield the 'elearning capital of Europe' is perhaps a 'bit overblown'. "Outside Europe there is growing competition from Asia particularly in India," yet within Europe, Hyam says the English language is very powerful and adds a further strength to Sheffield.

    Patterson believes the digital campus will 'anchor' Sheffield as a centre of elearning excellence and Wilson has already witnessed the migration of e-expertise from other parts of the UK: "With the digital campus well underway, we are gearing up to attract even more elearning companies here to join leaders such as Kineo, Learning Light, LINE, Desq, The Workshop, Peakdean and Ufi, and a whole range of specialist studios, to make Sheffield Europe's elearning hub."

    Companies are further attracted by a city on the edge of a National Park, half of Sheffield's residents live within 15 minutes of open countryside. The growth of the sector is also pushing up employment. Across the region the sector employs in excess of 123,000 employees in more than 13,000 businesses. This is adding an impressive £5.21bn gross value to the area. There was a 32% employment growth in five years to 2005. Wilson awaits the next lot of figures due to be analysed in 2010 but says that nearly all the companies in the sector expect to grow further.

    What's next?

    The second phase of the project involves land adjacent to the Sheffield Hallam University buildings on Sheaf Street; this is the smallest of the three planned phases and will deliver 25,000 square feet of offices and amenities.

    The third and final phase incorporates the work already underway around the city's rail station. A further 250,000 square feet of office space for the digital, creative and multimedia industries will be created. An 'iconic, futuristic building' will be constructed which its developers say will really put 'Sheffield on the map'.

    Ian Bromley, chief executive of Creative Sheffield said of the final phase: "It is a great day for Sheffield to have this important piece of infrastructure coming on line, creating a fantastic new space for the growth of our creative and digital companies. This is the final piece of the initial city centre masterplan to fall into place and it paves the way for the next set of investments identified in Creative Sheffield's upcoming economic masterplan." Hyam says the whole development is about creating a space for the creative industries which is anything but 'passive' and by the looks of it the ehub that is being created is going to be just that: vibrant and full of life.

    Annie Hayes, MCIPD, is a former editor of our sister site She now works part-time as contributing editor for both and using her wealth of knowledge to write features for both websites


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