Skip to main content

The Future of Universities: Research universities and regional economies

David Ward, 2013 Chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Published in June 2013

What’s next for universities? With the sector diversifying into online learning, not to mention the many varied opportunities offered by further and higher education colleges, it’s become harder to say what a university will look like in the future. In March 2013, leading academics and experts, organisations, and international student leaders at Warwick Universities Summit 2013 tackled the issue of universities in 2025. Speakers from across the sector discussed topics such as funding and widening access, and what the value of the global public university should be in a rapidly developing world. Here,David Ward, 2013 Chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers his views.

Students gather round a computer

Over the past two decades, external pressures on higher education have increasingly stressed the positive and generative connections between national and regional economic growth and comprehensive research universities. This connection between university-based research and the knowledge economy seemed initially to be an ideal justification for an expansion of public investment in higher education. For those of us in the United States, this positive advocacy was compounded by growing apprehension about the potential diminished competitiveness of US higher education as the research capacities of the EU, China and India expanded.

The funding benefits of this positive relationship between university research and economic competitiveness were of course curtailed by the fiscal consequences of the recent worldwide recession but other more critical issues of accountability now prevail in discussions of how public policies can enhance economic advancement. Generally, the most productive way in which universities have transferred knowledge has been by preparing students for advanced managerial or technical roles. Recently, the fit between curricula and the level of preparation for professional practice has been questioned. In particular, student choices of disciplinary specialisation did not necessarily lead to easy entry into high technology professions leading to accountability proposals that could convert universities into aggregations of professional schools.


This unresolved debate is now focused more directly on other kinds of technology or knowledge transfer from universities to the market place. Several research universities have developed more direct strategies of knowledge transfer that have become a productive means of self-funding. Consortia of businesses are prepared to subscribe to early and frequent access to innovative university research, intellectual property is licensed to companies and the proceeds divided between the university endowment and the scientist-inventor, university research parks provide sites for early stage start-up companies that have their origins in the intellectual property of research and, to the degree that local investment capital is available, start-up companies are created by local entrepreneurs with links to university research.

In this continuum of connections between discovery and product, the least direct forms of consortia and licensing are the most prevalent and have provided the most secure flow of funding back to research universities. Political pressures to do more for local or regional employment now question the value of knowledge transfer that does more nationally and globally than locally. Even in local environments where the risk culture necessary for a start-up success is weakly developed, there is an assumption that university research should and can overcome the limitations of local capital markets. Clearly without some comparative regional advantage in access to capital and attractiveness to entrepreneurs, research universities will be unable to meet the expectations of regional economies.


It is also critical that policies recognise that research investment must include pure and serendipitous scholarship since many products are derived from these sources. The drive to concentrate on more strategically driven applied research may undermine the discovery process itself. Just as our educational mission needs to connect professional preparation to the broader curricula of the arts and sciences, our research mission needs to embrace a comprehensive philosophy of discovery rather than restrict funded research to narrowly defined outcomes. On the other hand ready access to opportunities for innovation when combined with appropriate advice and funding, will provide faculty and students with an invaluable education in the complex process of discovery to product. Local support strives to recognise global reputations but not necessarily at the expense of some direct contributions to regional growth.

For more from the Knowledge Centre's Global Universities Summit blog, which focussed on the issues in higher education ahead of the 2013 Global University Summit, please click here.

The Global University Summit 2013 was hosted by the University of Warwick in Whitehall, London.

Image: Students work on an in-class assignment in an Electrical and Computer Engineering 230: Circuit Analysis course taught by faculty associate Michael Morrow on the fourth floor of Wendt Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison). Via Flickr.

David WardDuring his last tenure, Chancellor Ward was a champion for reinvigorating the 'Wisconsin Idea' by building connections among and between the university, city, county, and the state. He promoted the creation of the Bradley and Chadborne residential learning communities and a cross-college advising service. He brought a 'cluster hiring' programme to UW-Madison aimed at attracting and retaining world-class faculty, and he created the university’s Technology Transfer Council in 1995. Ward was also instrumental in the growth of University Research Park.