The UK needs more than ivory towers - Business Works
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The UK needs more than ivory towers

by Professor Stephen Caddick, Vice-Provost, UCL The UK is undeniably in an economic quagmire and possibly on the brink of a triple-dip recession. Solutions, it seems, are everywhere – only last week we had the Confederation of British Industry launching their proposals for an industrial strategy, following hot on the heels of an avalanche of other initiatives, proposals, plans, strategies and the rest. The role of universities in all of these, though, is at best seen as benign outsiders, looking down from our ivory towers aloof and uninterested in business. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There’s a common misconception that universities are huge, faceless monoliths acting on their own terms. We are not. We are bodies of thousands of individuals – scientists, linguists, technicians, engineers, geographers, historians, support staff – working together to expand knowledge. That’s thousands of people looking to work with others outside universities to expand, apply and commercialise this knowledge, to benefit society and the economy. With an economy in trouble, now is the time to redouble our efforts to make it easier for people in universities, and people in business, to work together.

It is educating and supporting our students which are the most obvious contribution universities make to the economy, through producing highly trained, employable graduates and supporting those – both staff and students – who are keen to set up their own businesses. Work placements for students in businesses, both large and small, can give unparalleled insight for students into career paths and a valuable boost to their future career prospects. For businesses the advantages can be enormous, too.

This year, for example, UCL launched a scheme to place students in high-growth start-ups in London. The students gained valuable experience and a stipend, paid by the university. The businesses gained the input of motivated, enthusiastic young people who could make a fundamental difference in the way they operated. Feedback from the scheme has been resoundingly positive from all concerned – a mark of confidence in an approach which emphasises building bridges rather than isolation.

Professor Stephen Caddick, Vice-Provost, UCL

Universities must do more, too, to open their doors to small and medium sized businesses on their doorsteps and offer them support and advice. There are many – including Queen’s University Belfast, Cranfield University, UCL and several others – who are already at the vanguard through offering tailored business support to small businesses; offering access to the expertise of our researchers to take their products or services in profitable new directions, for example.

Innovative initiatives like the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Programme, supporting small businesses with high growth potential through an intensive schedule of workshops and support at universities around the country, are vital to fully harness the expertise of universities to benefit the commercial sector.

Universities have a vital role in attracting investment from overseas, too. Access to the expertise of British universities’ best minds can provide a competitive advantage to global businesses. Already UCL is working with Cisco, Intel and BHP Billiton to invest in new research institutes to fast-track research from the lab bench to the market place. This can be just the start of making the UK the top choice for any global business looking to work with our research community, if the Government takes suitable steps to simplify taxes and overhaul the immigration system to facilitate this. Ensuring jobs remain in the UK through properly reforming these structures will go a long way to boosting the economy for years to come.

Over the long-term, though, we need to recognise that our economy in the twenty-first century will be radically different from that of the twentieth. Gone will be the days of heavy industry and dark satanic mills providing employment – this century, new jobs will come from the tech, media, creative and healthcare industries; all areas in which people, as well as products, will be the focus. To drive this we must rethink how businesses and universities actually work together – establishing new centres where businesspeople and researchers can work cheek-by-jowl, innovating and developing new products and services in tandem.

With so much in flux, we have a golden opportunity to reshape our economy to be a global leader. A strategy for reigniting the economy in a radical new direction, a direction which the market is already hinting at, is what is needed, with strengthening links between people between different institutions at the heart. The days of academics shutting themselves up in ivory towers are over.

More information about how businesses can work with UCL can be found: here

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