Universities excel at education. Whether it is their core mission of educating undergraduates and postgraduates, or others, such as providing lifelong education, their proficiency is unrivalled.
It is no coincidence that countries that are home to internationally leading universities also tend to excel in the sciences, arts and humanities by supporting the development of highly trained and creative workforces who continue to learn and adapt throughout their careers.
However, new roles for universities are emerging.
Today, universities cannot exist in the isolation of their academic towers, but must play a central role as an "honest broker", bringing together local and national and international stakeholders from the worlds of industry, government, health, other academic institutions and the public. They are uniquely placed to do this: few institutions are as trusted, transparent and dispassionate in the debate and discussions they increasingly lead, while many have become a catalyst for economic development by attracting inward investment.
All sections of society have started to recognise the value that experts and their institutions can bring to the health and wealth of a country. Almost by default universities have found themselves playing a large role within their home cities running large projects – from smart cities to building cultural institutions – using their honest broker status to be the civic glue for large conurbations. Through my own experiences I have seen universities play a lead role in supporting the economic development of their home city. Not through new student housing or hosting conferences but by working with other civic partners to secure new investment in their city. The reason for this is that international companies looking to locate in a new city want to be part of a research-intensive environment, one that is constantly throwing new ideas around, conducting research, honing workforce skills and knowledge and giving access to the infrastructure and tools inherent in a university.
This is why we find economic hot spots or "clusters" in close association with cities and regions with high-quality universities, whether it be the clusters on the east and west coasts of America, in Singapore, Cambridge, London and Oxford and now increasingly in the North of England. Not just spin-outs from these institutions but also companies attracted by being close to great seats of learning.
The Northern Health Science Alliance’s Connected Health Cities programme is a particularly groundbreaking example of how universities are acting as this "civic glue"; university researchers are embedded in the work of hospitals, social care organisations and with the local population tying together data and analysing it for the benefit of the population's health. This is a model of identifying a university's skillset then working outside the institution to bring communities together that can be taken and applied to numerous scenarios.
Health provides a long-standing example of how universities globally play an incredibly important role in in their community. It is well-known that hospitals that conduct more research have better patient outcomes because when universities are linked to healthcare providers they improve the health of their local population almost as a by-product of the work they do. This interconnectedness works in the institution's favour too; it can attract the highest calibre students and academics, draw in industrial investment and attract research grants and government funding. Beyond health, universities are having an impact in the development of future cities from the creation of smart cities to urban transformation projects where you will always find a university at the table.
In the North of England, larger universities in Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle are delivering these benefits for their communities at scale by having a larger workforce of academic and academic support staff. But a pressing question is how do we enable smaller yet highly research active and internationally competitive institutions to get involved at similar scales? One element is developing the workforce within the university. Often these new roles have no job titles within the university or set departments to manage delivery – instead most of these tasks are conducted in addition to the day job. As a consequence, universities might want to think about how they resource these vital roles properly, supporting those with the skills to fulfil this important civic aspect of their work.
Thinking beyond local civic duties, universities globally also have a pivotal role to play in informing national government policy. Their position as influencers cannot be underestimated or undervalued. University leaders themselves have big voices – for their institution, for their field and for their city or region – if they choose to use them.
In the UK, universities have been instrumental in producing the new UK Life Sciences Industrial Strategy. The board that wrote the document included many of the UK’s leading research institutions, leading to the production of an informed strategy, which, if correctly implemented, will harness the power of universities for the country's benefit.
These institutions need to be recognised not only as centres of academic excellence but also for all of this other work that they do. Politicians and commentators need to stop the university baiting – instead they need more funding to help them in this role as an honest broker and to do more of it.
Hakim Yadi is CEO of the Northern Health Science Alliance. On 22 September, he will be speaking on a panel at the Global University Engagement Summit, hosted by the University of Melbourne.