Universities and The Knowledge Age

By David Docherty –
University and business relations have always ebbed and flowed. For the most part the relationship has been fruitful, creative and collaborative. On occasion, it’s been a dialogue between at best dysfunctional friends, at worst, warring tribes. But post the Browne Review we should take the opportunity for new and broader thinking about the role of universities in a knowledge-based economy.

There are as many definitions of the knowledge economy as there are economists trying to define it. I simply take it as axiomatic that any useful definition will stretch well beyond the creative, digital and information technology industries (CDIT) and encompass manufacturing and services, where ideas are also a major economic driver. This results in the uglier, but more accurate concept of a knowledge-based economy powered by the internet (which is the equivalent of steam for the first industrial revolution, and oil and electricity for the second).

This has profound implications for what universities do in engaging with the economic life of the nation, and raises challenging questions about some taken-for-granted assumptions about business-university collaboration. For example, universities have been consistently lectured about their role in developing the skills agenda. But is ‘skill’ a knowledge-based concept, or is it a term best left for industries that require rote learning and mechanical responses to repeatable problems? Skills are a necessary, but not remotely sufficient condition of economic and business success.

A knowledge-based economy requires experts who are self-reflective, critical of existing methods, intellectually restless and passionate about doing things better. Experts are the ‘cybernauts’ of the knowledge age. They are built for the systemic complexity of modern manufacturing, services and creative businesses, for the repeated shocks of the new, and for a future where cannibalising your own market is preferable to becoming someone else’s spam in a can.

The race will be won by economies which produce the highest calibre expertise to sit alongside smart money and coherent government policies. Universities have always been there to produce experts – from the earliest degrees in law, rhetoric, religion, astronomy and medicine, to the latest on quantum mechanics and digital media. And how businesses work with universities on anticipating the expertise required for the next wave of global change is of vital importance to their success. We must advance the debate beyond the hackneyed realms of STEM versus non-STEM, hard versus soft skills, oven-ready graduates versus thoughtful citizens.

Language traps as well as enables, and I think there is a strong argument that it is time to refresh the concepts that businesses and universities use to describe their joint challenges. We need a Big Conversation for The Knowledge Age. One that fully represents the complexities of living in modern businesses, and helps shape the thinking of the next generation of experts who will leave higher education knowing that expertise is something they will spend their lives gaining and utilising. A key role of a university is to produce people who have learned how to learn.

The Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) has begun this Big Conversation, with its Task Forces that bring together senior business leaders and Vice Chancellors. The first, The Fuse, focussed on the Creative, Digital and IT industries (CDIT for short) and recommended that UK administrations should put the CDIT industries alongside STEM at the heart of their growth strategies, that universities should recognise that CDIT businesses require graduates who can operate simultaneously across multiple technological and creative disciplines (and that this should be recognised in undergraduate education, as it is increasingly in Doctoral courses), and that ICT in schools should be radically overhauled to ensure that universities are receiving the right flow of talent.

The second report, Powering Up, focussed on cooperation for success in advanced manufacturing. It argued that universities are vital to advanced manufacturing growth, and should be central to the success of Local Enterprise Partnerships, the Technology Innovation Centres and the Regional Growth Fund. It went on to recommend that the Government and devolved administrations establish Advanced Manufacturing Enterprise Centres (AMECs), which would integrate universities with entrepreneurs, both in SMEs and major businesses, through a range of coherently managed relationships.

Powering Up also recommended that universities be more open with their IP and, indeed, should make as much of it available for free to advanced manufacturing businesses, looking to the Glasgow University model of offering up to 95% of their IP as an example. Finally, the report argued that it was the responsibility of big businesses to work with universities to increase the quality of knowledge and information in smaller businesses in their supply chains.

Success in the knowledge-economy requires integrated thinking of the highest order. Other governments across the globe are forcing the pace through dirigiste policies that create and hold knowledge in the country that funds them (China) or through special taxes on, for example, extraction industries (Brazil). The UK cannot and will not pursue that route, looking instead for market-based solutions to these challenges. However, markets on their own will never supply the intellectual capital needed for the volume of innovation required in a modern business. Too few people appreciate that Silicon Valley was built not once but twice by defence department funding via the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which spawned industries around both semiconductors and the internet.

Government has a pivotal role in ensuring that the UK can be a major player in a knowledge-based global economy, not least in signalling that it understands the needs of businesses and universities as their relationship continues to develop within it.

David Docherty is Chief Executive of the Council For Industry and Higher Education (CIHE), and Chairman of the Digital Television Group, which is the industry body for digital television in the UK.

CIHE is a strategic leadership network of blue-chip companies working with vice chancellors and universities to develop the UK’s knowledge-base economy.

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