Give us freedom to exploit our expertise

May 15, 1998

Higher education's role in the economic and social well-being of Britain should be recognised and underpinned, says Marilyn Wedgwood

HIGHER education has always had an important implicit role in creating wealth and improving the quality of life in this country. Now, however, there is a rising expectation that its contribution, regionally and nationally, should become more explicit and accountable. But the sector is not "freed up" to play its full part.

In a university such as mine there is encouragement, right from the top, to find ways of making our wide-ranging knowledge assets available for economic and social benefit locally, regionally and nationally. We are making progress all the time with a coordinated set of new approaches generating a richer interaction with users from the private and public sector. But it is hard work bringing together two very different cultures, operating in the face of competing priorities for academe and users, and with no established national framework.

Long-standing concerns over better exploitation of the knowledge base are most evident in the ever-expanding complex web of publicly-funded schemes and initiatives from Europe and from the government. Yet the core business of higher education institutions is teaching and research and these must be the priorities. The schemes, while often excellent, are complex to manage and can create tensions for academic staff.

Has the time come for institutions to be given proper recognition for their role in the economic and social well-being of this country, so they can pursue it with pride, status, quality and professionalism? Can it and should it be a recognised additional core area for an institution, growing out of the knowledge base, enriching teaching and research without diluting excellence?

If higher education had a more explicit and recognised established responsibility, it could openly develop its professional competency to play a fuller role in the useful application of knowledge for the benefit of the UK. It could do this in ways that properly integrate with teaching and research to be mutually reinforcing. The country needs a rich innovative capability to be competitive in the global economy and to address social and environmental issues.

If the incentives are right universities can not only ensure graduates entering the labour market have the appropriate knowledge and skill profile to operate in a professional environment, but can also raise and keep up-to-date the skill and knowledge levels of the workforce, keeping it in touch with higher education. They could be more active in establishing high-tech industrial sectors and subsectors and in informing social and environmental policy. These things could be done as part of the wider process of transferring knowledge into the community, which itself yields positive returns.

Each institution could find its own niche with equal pride. Each would make its own choice, building on its individual strengths to integrate with research and teaching. Some might choose to work on a longer term competitiveness or social agenda. Others might prefer to work with their regional business communities, addressing the shorter term problems of small and medium-sized enterprises to improve competitive performance. Others might concentrate on continuous professional development in public and private sectors through flexible modes of delivery, or focus on commercialisation activity and spinning out high technology companies.

But universities cannot go it alone. The user communities, the intermediaries and the agencies have an important part to play. Universities can open their doors and become very professional but there must be an increasing, informed demand from the users. Many large companies are skilled at working with academe, but there are many more with limited awareness of the value to them of higher education. The issue is ultimately about building relationships so that collaboration and partnership can flourish. It is not about higher education doing the users' jobs for them, but finding ways of working together that bring mutual benefit. Having the people in the right numbers, in the right places, with the right skills and competencies, and incentives and career paths, will make the difference.

Higher education should have a fuller role in wealth creation and quality-of-life issues. an integrated approach is the key, bringing together different aspects of the process through the main players. Such an approach would ensure: that the operational infrastructure facilitates involvement; that people in sufficient numbers and distribution have the competencies; that there is a sophisticated and informed demand from users and that a vibrant original knowledge base is maintained.

If these processes were explicitly coordinated to complement and reinforce each other, the knowledge base would become more accessible and higher education would be "freed up" to meet the expectation that it should contribute to the economic and social well-being of this country through the exploitation of its knowledge, expertise and skills.

Marilyn Wedgwood is director of the regional office of the University of Sheffield.

See Research, pages i-xl

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