29: Universities in the not-too-distant future

Will universities look different in 25 or 50 years’ time? I think at least some will, perhaps all. There will be new imperatives for successful countries and regions, and universities can play a crucial role. It is commonplace to say that future societies and economies will be knowledge-based. The Swedish economist, Ake Andersson, used to argue that a successful region needed three Cs for success: creative, cognitive and communications capabilities. Universities are the heart of this provision. They are central nodes in the knowledge ecosystem, delivering teaching and research, and communicating their ‘products’ – ideas and graduates. This is recognised in contemporary discourse by thinking of universities as having three roles – the two principal ones of teaching and research and a third which is variously labelled, for example as ‘outreach’ or ‘public engagement’. A part of this outreach is exploiting university research in the wider economy and it has long been argued that the means and delivery of this is inadequate in the UK. There have been many reports and initiatives aimed at enhancement: Innovate UK and the Catapults are recent examples. While there are many instances of good practice – entrepreneurial academics providing the links themselves – the scale of this activity is too low. So why not go the whole hog and integrate universities directly into the economy?

There are obvious precedents for this, particularly in health. Most universities contribute directly in producing staff of all kinds for the health service. University Medical Schools and University Hospitals are quite closely integrated, sharing staff through joint appointments. In at least one case – in my own experience in Leeds – we merged the University School of Dentistry and the NHS Dental Hospital into one – the Leeds Dental Institute. In the United States, there are many examples of university hospitals being just that: owned and run by the university. In research, there has been some integration of the resources of the MRC (the Medical research Council) with those of the government (the Department of Health in this case) through OSCHR – the office for the Strategic Coordination of Health Research. Professor Jonathan Shepherd of Cardiff University has argued persuasively that this mechanism could be used in other fields.

Let us first step back and look at the possible spectrum of university roles and then examine how universities can be integral parts of the economy at one end of this spectrum. At the academic end, there will be a continuing ‘need’ for Departments of Mathematics, Philosophy and English Literature – and many more. Blue skies research should still be there on the same scale, supported by research councils. These departments will no doubt look different from now in terms of modes of teaching for example but there will be large chunks of the university that will still attract 18 year olds at the start of their post-school careers. At the other end of the spectrum, some large companies and public organisations already

have their training and research needs met by so-called ‘corporate universities’. I know of no examples where these have been merged with conventional universities and I would think this has to be part of future development. I once argued to the Chief Executive of a very large company that he could promote this and not only offer what would then be accredited training through a merging his own operation with a real university, but he could then offer the courses to his customer base thus achieving three things: contributing to the UK education system, strengthening his links with his customers and making a profit! I failed to be persuasive enough and I have occasionally tried since but still failed. But surely this will start to happen somewhere along the line. In the middle of the spectrum, we find the embryonic ecosystem that exists now: many, usually small, collaborative schemes, in both teaching and research. And we find the ‘science parks’ that rely on collaboration through proximity.

So what would ‘the whole hog’ look like? Companies could outsource their training needs to Business Schools and at least some of their research. The bigger ones with existing corporate universities could merge them. Some companies, and branches of larger companies could locate on a university campus. Many of these could be joint ventures whose staff would be both members of the university and of the company. This opens up the possibility of equity funding to expand many of these knowledge-based joint enterprises: no new government money should be needed except possibly on a seed corn basis. Health leads the way in terms of joint working this could be more fully integrated. There are possibilities of similar arrangements with other professions – law would be an interesting example. OSCHR-type arrangements could be put in place to integrate research budgets in other government departments with the university sector – notably Education, Home Office, DEFRA, DECC – indeed a good proportion of all departments. New governance arrangements would be needed – for example some kind of university holding company to oversee the joint ventures part of its operations. This would help the drive towards interdisciplinarity – and overcoming the old joke that ‘industry has problems, universities have departments’!

Is this feasible? As with many speculations about the future, it can be argued that it is already visible in some places: the health sector, a few mergers here and there, a few joint ventures; well-integrated science parks. So all of this can be imagined on a bigger scale. Some parts of the university would look like they do now; some Business Schools would start add braches that looked like large management consultants funded on an equity basis. An imaginative university management could drive and facilitate all of this. Some universities will do it more wholeheartedly than others; some not at all. So we need to spell out this kind of scenario more fully and then lay bets on whether it will happen or not!

Alan Wilson

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