For all their claim to be unique, most universities around the world would emphasize their role in preparing students for the world of work.
Science can also rightly point to an extraordinary range of ways in which it contributes to economic growth and social prosperity through partnerships with private and public sector organisations.
Despite this, governments remain concerned that graduates have the right skills for employment. They also seek better returns on their investments in research and innovation, and expect universities to address global challenges such as fighting climate change, promoting economic prosperity and improving healthcare.
At the same time, universities are increasingly aware of the need to contribute to their sites, not least to dispel the notion that they are elitist, engaged in so-called culture wars and out of touch.
It is tempting to dismiss concerns about ‘higher education and industry’ as ill-informed, which requires little more than a better communication strategy. Well, if effective communication requires the ability to do so listen as well as say, then that might be a good start.
The data is another good starting point, and universities can draw on many goals related to graduate aspirations. They also need information about changing employment patterns, whether local or national. This, in turn, can provide insight into which areas new courses and programs should invest in and which areas should be exited.
It’s in the nature of universities that they don’t always – often? – adapt quickly. The introduction of new fields of study takes time and can be slowed down with necessary and unnecessary bureaucracy.
Entering a new market can also require speculative investment, and redirecting resources is cumbersome and difficult – universities are far better at starting activity than stopping it.
Greater agility is needed as the “traditional” three or four year bachelor’s degree may not be the only answer. This could be part of the answer, but in parallel it is possible to find alternative and faster ways to meet employers’ needs. Students also benefit from this, as many of them want greater flexibility in how and what they learn.
In terms of the program, this can be through apprenticeships, short courses, or microcredits. Organizationally, it could mean that universities create alternative “delivery units”, such as subsidiaries, that are not burdened by slow internal processes.
But it is also about a change in mentality and the willingness to help shape teaching content and structures. A common complaint from employers is that universities often and unimaginatively simply offer “off-the-shelf” products.
This does not mean that every course should be “tailor-made” for every employer. Rather, it means that employers are engaging in content creation in areas that may be of interest to some of them, whether it be cybersecurity, mental health care, 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. That how Your engagement is just as important – if not more so – than that What of commitment.
The same applies to research and innovation. While there are many good examples of lively and fruitful collaborations between “industry” and individual universities – and good mechanisms for this, such as knowledge transfer partnerships and joint applications for research funding – there are few incentives for collaboration between Universities for the common good.
Competition works because it helps drive excellence, but we have ‘sold’ collaboration, deluding ourselves that it lacks rigor and is inefficient. In order to achieve sufficient scale in research, development and innovation – and to encourage better external partnerships – universities should have more and better incentives to collaborate.
I am expressing my interest and running an institution that is more ‘applied’ and career oriented – meaning everything from medicine to fine arts to engineering and much more.
Globally, such institutions can do the “hard work” in university-industry collaboration – preparing students for high-quality jobs, as well as problem-solving, applied research and innovation with local and regional companies.
Many of them, including my own university, are at the forefront of undergraduate entrepreneurship programs and graduate startups. However, the prestige of such work and such universities is often not the same as that attached to more established high profile ‘names’.
But what could be more important than preparing our students for the jobs needed in local economies, encouraging local employers to hire graduates to drive productivity gains, and helping graduates become the entrepreneurs of the future?
Not only is this economically smart, it also speaks to the fact that universities are embedded in the places where they are located and not separate from them. Against a rising wave of populism, this is also wise policy.
leadership matters. Vice Chancellors and Presidents must devote serious time to their industry collaborations, both now and in the future, and not simply leave the task to academics and other staff working in the field.
This is not a zero-sum game, where one type of institution thrives at the expense of another. As the North East of England demonstrates, both complementary and collaborative universities are demonstrating their collective strength and The value of diversity in higher education.
Regardless of which jurisdiction we are in, universities should therefore speak with one voice about the essential role they play in promoting economic prosperity, social harmony and cultural dynamism.
Sir David Bell is Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Sunderland.
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