The sector must come together when talk turns to promoting economic success

What could be more important than preparing our students for jobs in the local economy and supporting graduates to become the entrepreneurs of the future? asks Sir David Bell

David Bell's avatar
University of Sunderland
8 Apr 2022
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For all their claims to distinctiveness, most universities worldwide would emphasise their role in preparing students for the world of work.

With much justification, academe can also point to an extraordinary range of ways in which it contributes to economic growth and social well-being through partnerships with private and public sector organisations.

Yet, for all that, governments continue to fret about graduates having the right skills for employment. They also seek better returns on their investment in research and innovation, expecting universities to address global challenges such as tackling climate change, promoting economic prosperity and improving healthcare.

At the same time, universities are ever more aware of the need to contribute to their localities, not least to dispel the notion that they are elitist, preoccupied with so-called culture wars and out of touch.

It is tempting to dismiss concerns about “HE and industry” as ill informed, requiring little more than a better communications strategy. Well, if effective communications require an ability to listen as well as tell, then that might be a good place to begin.

The data is another good place to begin, and universities have much to draw upon about graduate destinations. They also need intelligence about changing patterns of employment, whether that is in their locality or nationally. That, in turn, can inform which areas to invest in through new courses and programmes and which areas to exit.

The nature of universities means that they cannot always – often? – adapt quickly. Introducing new areas of study takes time and can be slowed down with both necessary and unnecessary bureaucracy.

Entering a new market might also call for speculative investment, and redirecting resources is cumbersome and difficult – universities are much better at starting, than stopping, activities.

Greater nimbleness is required as the “traditional” three- or four-year undergraduate degree might not be the only answer. It could be part of the answer but, in parallel, it is possible to identify alternative, and quicker, ways to meet employer needs. That will also benefit students, as many of them want greater flexibility in how and what they learn.

In programme terms, it might be through apprenticeships, short courses or microcredentials. Organisationally, it might mean that universities create alternative “delivery units”, such as subsidiary companies that are unencumbered by slow-moving internal processes.

But it is also about a change of mindset and a willingness to co-create curriculum content and structures. A frequent complaint from employers is that universities often, and unimaginatively, simply offer “off the shelf” products.

This does not mean that every course should be “customised” to every employer. Rather, it means that employers are engaged in content creation in areas that might be of interest to several of them, whether that is cybersecurity, mental health nursing or events management.

Even in areas that are subject to external accreditation and regulation, universities should not simply rely on a “take-it-or-leave-it approach”. The how you engage is as important – if not more so – than the what of engagement.

The same is true on research and innovation. While there are many good examples of lively and fruitful collaborations between “industry” and individual universities – and good mechanisms for doing so, such as knowledge transfer partnerships and joint research funding bids – there is little incentive for collaboration between universities for the greater good.

Competition works as it helps to drive excellence, but we have “sold the pass” on collaboration and allowed ourselves to be deluded into thinking that it lacks rigour and is inefficient. To achieve sufficient scale in research, development and innovation – and leverage better partnerships externally – universities should have more and better incentives to work together.

Declaring an interest, I lead an institution that is more “applied” and vocationally orientated – and that means everything from medicine through creative arts to engineering and much else besides.

Worldwide, such institutions can be doing the “heavy lifting” in university-industry collaboration – in preparing students for high-quality jobs, as well as in problem-solving, applied research and innovation activity with businesses locally and regionally.

Many of them, my own university included, are at the forefront of undergraduate entrepreneurship programmes and graduate startups. Yet, the prestige of such work, and of such universities, is often not the same as that which is attached to more established high-profile “names”.

But what could be more important than preparing our students for the jobs required in the local economy, encouraging local employers to recruit graduates as a means of driving productivity improvements and supporting graduates to become the entrepreneurs of the future?

Not only is this economically smart, it speaks to universities being embedded into, and not apart from, the places they are located. Against a rising tide of populism, that is clever politics, too.

Leadership matters. Vice-chancellors and presidents must devote serious time to their industry collaborations, both present and future, and not simply leave the task to academics and other staff who are active in this area.

This is not a zero-sum game where one kind of institution thrives at the expense of others. As the north-east of England illustrates, universities acting in a complementary manner, as well as together, demonstrate both their collective strength and the value of diversity in the higher education sector.

So, in whatever jurisdiction we find ourselves, universities should speak with one voice about the essential role that they play in promoting economic success, social harmony and cultural vigour.

Sir David Bell is vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Sunderland.

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