Embrace, don't shun, ethos of business

October 12, 2007

Tim Wilson, vice-chancellor of Hertfordshire, calls for the creation of a new generation of commerce-friendly universities. It has been heartening for academe to hear Government and Opposition acknowledge so clearly the contribution of universities to economic and social wellbeing. But there can be no doubt that a major challenge remains as we pursue a high-skills, high-value-added economy, dynamic and agile enough to compete with the best in the world. The demands upon higher education are becoming so diverse that it is time to acknowledge reality - differentiation in our sector.

There is a compelling case for a new generation of universities, focused on and expert in working with business - business-facing universities engaging and collaborating with business, the professions and the public sector. Of course, all universities do this - just as all universities are research active - but this new type of university has explicit business engagement at the core of its mission and purpose.

A business-facing university sees everything through a business lens. It means radical thinking about teaching and research. It means taking a creative, problem-solving approach to learning, applying knowledge and skills in the workplace, integrating academic insight with practical expertise: business and academe learning from each other. It means an institution-wide focus on innovation and on applied research - collaborative research and development, knowledge-transfer programmes, short-term R&D consultancy, spin-out and spin-in companies.

A business-facing university has a revolving door with business - not an interface or a portal but a true interaction. Employers know that the university will deliver - whether it be high-level skills, applied research, knowledge exchange or process improvement, short courses for their staff or expert consultancy services.

My own institution, Hertfordshire University, acquired Exemplas, the local Business Link operator, and this has provided that revolving door. Linked to a huge network of businesses in the UK, Exemplas and its brokerage contracts enable business to connect to new ideas and thinking, research and consultancy, and the advanced facilities of universities.

Business-facing universities aim to be institutions of choice for students wishing to acquire the practical and academic skills relevant to the world of life and work. We do not have a careers advisory service, but an Employability Centre, matching employers' needs with student skills and also supporting careers and continuing professional development for graduates.

As we re-think the relationships between our university, our students and our business partners, we embrace business thinking in course design and in the delivery of learning and teaching.

All our courses are designed with formal business input. Professional advisory groups, people with relevant business expertise, give valuable insights into the current industry practice, informing skills requirements and curriculum needs, ensuring students can make the transition from study to the workplace.

Course content at Hertfordshire includes real-life business issues, tackled in multi-disciplinary, multicultural teams, as they would be in the workplace. We encourage academic staff to run commercial enterprises - and many do - and entrepreneurship is rapidly growing among our student body.

Relevant work experience is critical in providing the best possible preparation for future careers. More than half of our students have placements integrated with their course. I'd like that to be 80 per cent having accredited work experience by 2011. It is through these kind of strategies that we address some of the issues of employability and adaptability that are affecting the UK's competitiveness.

For business-facing universities committed to serving the needs of business, learning and teaching must also be about bite-sized and distance-learning, flexible and tailored provision, about rapid response to employer demand and delivery and accreditation in the workplace. We are already one of the largest continuing professional development providers in the country.

A business-facing philosophy also means being business-like in our thinking. We must practise what we teach. At Hertfordshire the businesses we have created or acquired subsidise our educational activities: social enterprise in action. In fact, this year we will generate more revenue from our commercial trading activities than through core government funding.

The business-facing model is not for every university. A core strength of the UK higher education sector is its diversity, and the future prosperity of this country depends on universities building on their strengths. There is widespread recognition of the mission and focus of research-intensive institutions, and the strengths of other higher education institutes in widening participation are well recognised. The challenge now is to establish the unique role and contribution of the business-facing university within a differentiated higher education sector. "One size" of university does not fit all; the development, promotion and endorsement of different university models is critical if the sector is to flourish.

- Tim Wilson is vice-chancellor of Hertfordshire University.

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