Warnings from the IMF, our GDP plummeting – our economy is in bad shape and the Government, it seems, is bereft of ideas about how to put it right. Austerity, apparently, seems to be the only game in town – yet now, more than ever, we need bold leadership and radical thinking about how to get back on track. We need an economic game changer and we are incredibly fortunate to have a platform from which we can launch it – our universities.
It largely goes unnoticed that our universities are world-class intellectual powerhouses, some of the very best on the globe at researching and discovering, inventing and innovating. As a country we seem to be intent on ignoring the extraordinary asset which could help us rebuild our crumbling economy.
Let me be clear: I am not a proponent of directing academics away from blue-sky research towards second-rate contract research for the highest bidder. I am passionate about the long term economic, social and cultural value of intellectual exploration through curiosity-driven research. But there seems to be a commonly held view that if you wish to preserve academic freedom, it’s impossible to provide any substantial economic benefit to the UK, and that attempting to do so will create profound damage to our research base.
I simply don't buy that argument – we already do make a major contribution to GDP. Yet we can do so much more if academics engage even more extensively with business. We should be using the base of our Higher Education sector to help our businesses innovate and grow, to encourage overseas corporations to invest in the UK and to create jobs for UK citizens. Many academics already do collaborate with business, recognizing that it can enrich and enhance the quality of scholarly work. Such interactions will become increasingly important to the academy, if we are to remain competitive in the global business that is higher education. We want more of our universities in the top 20 global leaders.
The Government started well in 2010 by protecting the research budget – a tall order but essential given that our competitors are investing much more into research. What is frustrating is we are not joined-up in using our assets for the best interests of the UK. Research activity generates highly trained staff, data, knowledge, and intellectual property and we should use them to our competitive advantage. take data and information - we all know the benefits of seeing new developments first, from academics who attend the latest conference to see unpublished work to businesses who have always recognised the importance of technology adoption and first-mover advantage
The question, then, is why, when we create some of the best knowledge and IP in the world, are we intent on pursuing initiatives such as Easy Access IP and Gold open access, without giving due consideration to the benefits for our economy. I am not opposed to the underlying principles of these initiatives, but in some cases they are unnecessary and in others they are unlikely to work. At worst they could mean that, as a nation, we will spend more money, do less research and accrue less economic benefit for the UK.
In my view, we can be smarter than this and use these assets as part of a package of measures to collectively make the UK the most attractive place for businesses committed to generating jobs and growth here.
We should create a network of research and innovation enterprise zones across the nation; places where large corporations could work alongside SMEs and university researchers from across sectors, rubbing shoulders, exchanging ideas and researching and innovating together. This would generate exciting new discoveries and then ensure their transformation at lightning speed into products, jobs and growth in the UK, for the UK. I’m not simply talking about science parks – but genuine research and innovation accelerators,promoting inward investment on scale and generating thousands of jobs.
The government would need to offer significant incentives to achieve this goal, perhaps including reduced corporation tax and flexibility on VAT to allow sharing of spaces. University researchers could make their research outputs preferentially available for a fixed period, perhaps alongside the embargo period of a green open access policy, providing an early view and hence opportunities for early uptake. We could also use these zones to pilot new ideas to liberate us from the stranglehold of red tape and burdensome regulation around employment law, immigration policies, procurement and others, which currently inhibit entrepreneurs and stifle growth.
Finally, the main assets of our universities are our people. It is people who innovate, collaborate and discover, not institutions. We need to nurture this talent and to boost innovation through enabling academics to gain exposure to new and different techniques in different settings. We need to enable people from across universities – from Professors, to Post-docs to PhD students – to move more freely amongst different types of institutions than is currently possible. We could establish a scheme whereby high-fliers rotate around a selection of small business, larger companies and university research departments to gain a variety of experience to develop new ways of innovating.
We are going to see profound changes in the next few years. The shift in economic power is clear and growing – and the signs are there for similar shifts in the global market place of higher education. We can chose to maintain a 19th Century view of higher education, or we can recognise academic research can be enhanced by serious collaboration with external enterprises. We must be bold and recognise that the depth of our knowledge base provides a competitive advantage that most countries are desperately trying to emulate, because they know that it creates enormous economic, social and cultural value. We have the opportunity of a generation to build a sustainable economy for the 21st century – but we need to open our eyes and seize the opportunity.
A version of this article was published on the Guardian HE Network at http://bit.ly/RjfomA