As I take up the role of President of Universities UK, I face an in-tray dominated by significant and profound societal issues – Brexit and the skills gap to name but two.

But with challenges come opportunities and I will be working with colleagues to continue to emphasise the critical role universities have solving these issues and the many benefits our world leading higher education has and will continue to bring to society.

Universities have done much in recent years to demonstrate the impact of their research, how their teaching is transforming the lives of their students and where their civic contributions are bringing benefit. They are a force for good and have remained steadfast in a climate of uncertainty, criticism and doubt. But we mustn’t rest on our laurels. We must look forward and think how best we can respond and rise to the challenges of our rapidly changing world.

We must look forward and think how best we can respond and rise to the challenges of our rapidly changing world.

Developing the future workforce is key part of our business. Our educational offering must adapt and evolve as technology drives changes in working practices and career paths are fundamentally rewritten. Young people are already staying in education for longer as the demand for higher level skills grows and increasingly they will return to higher education, or enter for the first time, to up-skill or re-skill as their careers develop. We must equip our young graduates and our mature learners with the skills – and perhaps more importantly the attributes – they need to survive and thrive in a world of constant change.

Employers consistently tell me that the need for higher level, technical skills will continue to grow. And of course, universities are well placed to deliver these skills.

But even today, technical expertise and knowledge and understanding of a discipline alone are no longer enough. Our graduates need a broad spectrum of skills, knowledge and behaviours to adapt and thrive in the changing world where new jobs and professions will emerge, evolve and replace current practice.

Of course, we cannot prepare every student for every eventuality. However, we can ensure that our students are equipped with the critical and analytical skills needed to interrogate and challenge the evidence base, to develop logical evidence-based arguments and to solve problems. And that our graduates can work independently and collaboratively; can listen, facilitate and mediate; can work effectively in the business environment, adapt to new challenges and think creatively to grow to new opportunities.

Many of these attributes are key products of a degree. But industry is well positioned to help and increasingly we recognise that business partnerships are a key ingredient in preparing our graduates for life beyond the university.

University-business collaborations open the door to a myriad of opportunities for our students while also enhancing the impact of our research base, so clearly demonstrated in the Collaboration Progress Monitor at the beginning of the State of the Relationship report. They increase understanding and impact, drive efficiency and bring benefits to all parties – universities, businesses, students and graduates alike.

There are some fantastic examples of such collaborations in this report. From embedding work-experience and work-based learning, to developing entrepreneurship skills to match-making with local businesses – the benefits to students and graduates are immense. But still we must ask ourselves, ‘are we doing everything we can to capitalise on these partnerships’? How best can we recognise gaps and future opportunities and strengthen our relationships to achieve better outcomes for our students and for employers?

That period of development to, through and beyond higher education – at any age and in any situation – is not simply an intervention at the beginning of a career. It is part of a journey of life-long learning, a journey that requires support at all stages from both employers and universities.

As universities we must build on emerging practices and adapt our approach by, for example, recognising prior learning and experience and offering more flexible approaches to enable students to ‘learn as they earn’, acquire credits over time and reskill or upskill as they progress through their careers. The traditional three or four year undergraduate degree or one year master’s does not work for everyone, particularly not for mature learners.

Accessibility and inclusivity must be at the heart of our ethos. We must address inequalities and enable individuals to benefit from our offering and thrive whatever their background and position industry and society to reap the benefit of the totality of our rich talent pool.

This article first appeared in the 2019 State of the Relationship report published 19 June 2019.


Professor Julia Buckingham CBE, Vice-Chancellor and President of Brunel University London, succeeds Professor Dame Janet Beer DBE, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, from 1 August 2019 as the President of Universities UK and will hold the post for two years. 

Professor Buckingham has been a member of the Board of the National Centre for Universities and Business for three years, providing tremendous support and guidance during this time. In addition, she is currently a Director of Imperial College Health Partners, a member of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group Council, a member of the Heathrow Skills Taskforce, Chair of The Concordat Strategy Group, supporting the career development of researchers, and Chair of the Athena SWAN Review Steering Group.