The role of universities is changing. The massive socioeconomic shifts that have occurred over recent years make this somewhat inevitable and the days when universities could turn out graduates without perhaps fully trying to understand the needs of the economy and society in which they operate are drawing to a close. Instead, universities are increasingly finding themselves not only having to react to the socioeconomic changes around them, but more importantly they are having to reinvent themselves as innovators in order to proactively drive the economy of the future.
These issues were very much at the forefront of the recent Association of University Administrators (AUA) conference in Manchester. The theme for the event was “Revolution and Reinvention”, and the purpose was to discuss the many broad issues and changes affecting the sector at this time, and how universities can best adapt. According to the organisers, Higher Education will be defined by how the sector reacts to the ongoing changes it faces.
One of the massive changes that the sector is having to adapt to is the part that universities might play in the “knowledge economy”. This was a theme taken up by one of the conference’s plenary speakers, Will Hutton. Mr Hutton — political economist, Principal of Hertford College Oxford, writer for the Observer and Financial Times, but perhaps best known for his book, The State We’re In — painted a picture of an HE sector markedly different to the one we might normally associate with universities. In addition to playing the traditional role of educator, the part he envisaged for universities was one where they play an integral role as innovators in the knowledge economy.
If there was an overarching theme to the address, it was that universities increasingly need to become key hubs in a whole economic and social network, rather than being – as perhaps they once were – somewhat aloof from this network. As Mr Hutton said, “universities need to link into innovation ecosystems, to include local businesses”. He also maintained that whilst retaining academic freedoms is crucial to the functioning of a university, this must be done in the context of economy and society. In other words, without losing the essential element of being an independent seat of learning, universities must look to more fully understand the economy and society in which they operate, and to play a crucial part in the development and growth of that economy and society.
Will Hutton was not the only keynote speaker to recognise the increasing need for universities to play this more active and integrated role. In her plenary address, HEFCE Chief Executive, Professor Madeleine Atkins, made it clear that universities have a core mission to drive knowledge transfer and economic growth, which should include engagement with Local Enterprise Partnerships. And in the closing plenary, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester spoke of the need for universities to redefine their roles in the 21st century, emphasising that universities are for the public good and should therefore be thinking more about how they can engage the public and contribute to society.
In many ways these themes aligned perfectly with our own presentation at the event. In “The story power of data – LMI for marketing, recruiting and communicating the value of your University”, I and my colleague, Hamilton Galloway, began by outlining how universities are increasingly expected to play the role not just of educator and researcher, but also that of economic driver, business developer, careers counselor, strategic advisor and community champion. However, as we went on to show, in order to get to the place where they are playing a full and successful role as economic drivers, universities need to undergo a radical shift in thinking from the old supply-driven model — where universities supply the labour market with talent, but without necessarily taking into account the needs and demands of the labour market — to a new model which takes a larger and more deliberate role in balancing the various supply/demand components of education and the labour market. In other words, to become successful economic developers, universities need to become the key hub referred to by Will Hutton — learning, adjusting and responding to the needs of the local, regional and national economy.
There are many facets involved in the creation of such a model, but one of the most important is data. If universities really are to take their place as drivers in the knowledge economy, an understanding of the economy in which they operate is crucial. Our presentation — which you can access here in full — went on to explain just how data can be harnessed to facilitate an in-depth understanding of the needs of the local and regional labour market, which in turn enables universities to bridge the gap between the real needs of the labour market, and their goal of driving economic growth in that market.
Will Hutton and the other plenary speakers are right: universities are increasingly going to find themselves having to adapt to the new knowledge economy and to look to new and innovative methods of placing themselves in the position of “key hubs” in the “innovation ecosystem”. Data can help them get there. Through good data, universities can better understand the labour market in which they operate. Through good data universities can help students and prospective students get onto a career path that will lead to sustainable careers. And through good data universities can quantify their economic and social impact demonstrating to key stakeholders just how much of a key hub they are in the community. In the fast changing knowledge economy, good labour market data is one innovative way that the Higher Education sector can rise to meet the challenges that confront them.
For further information about how EMSI can help the HE sector, please contact Andy Durman (firstname.lastname@example.org)