Bringing colleagues from outside the sector into the safe space of a university can lead to new thinking


The notion of the university as an ‘ivory tower’ has long been used as a term to unfairly label universities. The reality of a global higher education sector with competition between institutions mean this old fashioned metaphor, emphasising our isolation from the ‘real world’, has become redundant.

But we can modernise the idea somewhat by thinking of universities as a safe space for freedom of thought and new ideas. It is this notion which should underpin the relationship between universities and businesses.

There is huge potential for universities and businesses to come together around mutual interests. Both the academy and business are driven by the need to innovate: academics develop theories, concepts and ideas working to deepen intellectual understanding; businesses seek new processes; products or services to secure competitive advantage.

Businesses are seeing the potential of collaborating with universities, and universities are challenging themselves to make a broader societal impact – including the economic impact to be gained from supporting business. This need not be a zero-sum game. Engaging with business can enhance the teaching and research activities that universities undertake.

Our shared interest is very obvious if you consider the employability of our graduates and the future of the workplace. One common critique levelled at the higher education sector is that graduates enter the workforce without the skills they need to succeed.

Thanks to rising tuition fees, today’s students are far more conscious of the investment they are making and understandably wish to see a return upon it. Later in life, those already in the workforce may wish to upskill or retrain for a changing job market. Universities should be in a position to offer flexible higher education, yet a recent report into part-time study found that companies are exploring other avenues for professional development regarding these as more effective and useful than that offered by universities.

We need to reverse that trend. The answer is working with businesses of all sizes to design courses provide what the economy needs while maintaining the academic rigour required by universities. There are many examples where this works fantastically well.

Investment in knowledge exchange has taken us far beyond simply seeking to commercialise our intellectual property. Once resources and ideas have been pooled, universities and businesses are in the strongest possible position to be entrepreneurial. The strength of the UK higher education system and the long-lasting nature of its institutions offer the business community a stable partner, minimising risks and establishing a firm platform for growth.

The key is allowing ourselves the freedom to innovate. Universities need to be much better at promoting their wares to the business community and at forging deeper and more meaningful partnerships. Bringing colleagues from outside the sector into the ‘safe space’ of a university can lead to new thinking and perspectives which in turn result in wider economic and social benefits. This is a core purpose of a university in the 21st century and the business community should play an active role in helping us achieve this mission.

Professor Mark E. Smith is Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster University