By Dr Joe Marshall, CEO, National Centre for Universities and Business

As students return to lecture theatres across the country, news on their institutions has proliferated, with few relentlessly positive.

From accusations of manipulating global rankings and academic bullying to an existential crisis on their value to students, higher education institutions have had a turbulent few weeks. And that’s without the raft of reforms changing the landscape in which they operate and the criteria against which they are assessed.

As Chief Executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business, focused on collaboration between higher education and industry, you might expect me to leap to the defence of our institutions. Predictably, I won’t disappoint. But my focus is on the mission-critical nature of our university base in helping to deliver the growth and productivity our economy needs.

The UK faces profound challenges of economic identity. We retain a productivity problem, with a long tail of especially low productivity. Geographic imbalance is seemingly entrenched. Investment in research and development is significantly behind the OECD average. And Brexit uncertainties are not conducive to confidence and long-range planning.

Collectively, we need to do something. And we must be guided in our actions by what we decide to be. I believe the UK should aspire to be a world-leading knowledge economy, bringing together our research assets, rich, innovation-ready business base and marketplace of ideas to find, advance and commercialise cutting-edge research and technology. It’s around this that the membership of NCUB convenes.

Critical to this mission is a vibrant research base, germinating ideas, exchanging knowledge with business, and conducting cutting edge R&D. Our universities continue to step up to the plate. The Research Excellence Framework is full of examples of genuinely excellent outputs with the majority of submissions to the exercise rated as internationally excellent or world-leading and impactful outside of academia.

Our universities continue to originate ideas ripe for commercialisation, and through pursuit of knowledge exchange they are growing increasingly adept at mutual learning with industry.

Our universities continue to originate ideas ripe for commercialisation, and through pursuit of knowledge exchange they are growing increasingly adept at mutual learning with industry. The next challenge they face is in expanding this offer, democratising it to a greater number of high-potential small and medium sized businesses, and ensuring its wider recognition, but this is already under way. This work with smaller firms can be transformative and we must as a nation empower those with high growth potential to work more closely with the research base to take up the challenge of driving growth and productivity.

UK universities are a potent international brand comparatively untarnished by more alienating elements of the Brexit discourse. And this brand realises tangible financial benefits. NCUB’s Collaboration Progress Monitor, which tracks activity and value in university-business interaction, identified £1.35bn of foreign investment in UK universities’ R&D – undeniable evidence of the compelling draw of our institutions’ research reputations. This number, however, was captured prior to the referendum and its fallout – we will be keenly monitoring developments as new data emerges.

Universities are helping business realise their potential; seeding innovation, offering access to equipment and expertise, and sharing their knowledge. They are helping businesses access finance, build consortia of like-minded firms and have huge economic, social and cultural impacts on their localities.

They are also a powerful magnet for human capital. After all, a knowledge economy needs knowledgeable people. And whilst we believe the UK should be at the heart of the global marketplace of ideas, wherever they originate, we must also develop our own talented researchers. People of diverse backgrounds and origins who can support the germination and development of new ideas are invaluable. We want them to do that in the UK, and in doing so, help to develop and nurture our next generation research and innovation leaders. Our universities are where much of this nurturing begins, and where the research outputs that will set us on the front foot are so often brought to life.

This is critical to our immediate needs. Beyond this, NCUB and its members understand the need to prepare for the future: from ensuring graduates are equipped to work in new and emerging industries and respond to a machine learning world – and possess the adaptability and resilience to respond to and shape the future; the UK’s performance in terms of skills captured in the World Economic Forum’s Global Human Capital Report signifies how far we need to go. Universities, in tandem with business, play a critical role.

In this I echo the ambitions of our Minister for Universities and Science, Sam Gyimah. The UK needs to be open to talent from across the world, while ensuring a productive domestic pipeline; we must be entrepreneurial; and we must be open to international partnership and collaboration. It is in this space, as in so many others, that universities are immensely additive.

Amongst all the talk of ivory towers and the rapacity of the globally competitive marketplace in which our universities find themselves, the case for their importance to our economic future must be stated. Our institutions are central to our prosperity and productivity and there is much to celebrate about their work. It is sometimes worth reminding ourselves of this fact.


Published: 19 October 2018