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The Future of Universities: Business collaboration

Neil Carberry, Director for Employment and Skills at CBI.

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, Neil Carberry, Director for Employment at Skills at CBI shares his thoughts.


Strengthening research and innovation and having the right skills base will underpin a successful industrial strategy for the UK. Businesses and universities, not government, must seize the opportunity to work together and drive the agenda.

Universities have long been central to the CBI’s work on the growth agenda.

The CBI has often pointed to our universities as one of the UK’s strongest assets, from their research record – second only to the US – to the £15bn success story of UK education service exports. And all of this is recycled into better quality education for young people in the UK, raising skills and creating a virtuous cycle of innovation and exploitation of new ideas and technologies. Indeed, a major focus of the CBI over the past few years has been addressing failings in the economy whereby some of the technology-led start-ups, so often spun out from our universities, have struggled to grow. Our industrial strategy is one route to addressing this.

As the UK economy rebalances towards trade and investment, we need an industrial strategy that allows us to get behind sectors where the UK has the competitive advantage and the strategic opportunity. For government this means intelligent political and policy support, not picking winners. There’s no doubting that university-business collaboration, skills and R&D are all-encompassing issues, as well as for each individual sector strategy. I see three key trends where businesses and universities can work together to make real progress:

  • Firstly, on support for investment in research and innovation. Many of the industrial sectors with the greatest growth potential are dependent on sufficient long-term investment in R&D and innovation. Maintaining our competitive advantage means continued protection of spending on science in the 2015-16 Spending Round. When public finances allow, we’d like to see the same protection offered to the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), which plays a crucial role in supporting commercialisation. Public funding for research and innovation helps to catalyse private investment – we think there’s a lot more government can do on the margins to keep investment in the UK, and stimulate additional investment in our research base by UK and foreign-based companies.
  • Secondly, by tilting the debate towards the importance of science, technology, engineering and Maths (STEM). STEM graduates are needed not only to maintain key sectors, like manufacturing, engineering and creative industries but to drive future growth. With applications to study physical sciences, maths and engineering holding up well compared to other subjects, it may be that the dial is finally starting to move. But not quickly enough. A recent study by the Royal Academy of Engineering suggested that industry would need 830,000 new STEM professionals and 450,000 technicians between now and 2020. In reality, the UK currently produces only 90,000 STEM graduates a year. Working together, business and universities must take the opportunity to move debate beyond “STEM is good” to “STEM is a core element of the UK’s growth strategy, and there is a need for action now.”
  • Lastly, to maximise the potential of new routes to higher level skills. As business demand for higher level skills increases, universities have a real opportunity to capitalise on the availability of learning in increasingly flexible and attainable ways, particularly online. There’s no doubt that there are already some exciting collaborations between businesses, universities and colleges to deliver skills. For instance, take Jaguar Land Rover’s Technical Accreditation Scheme. Developed in collaboration with university partners, the programme enables employees to work towards Masters level qualifications through a series of business-relevant modules. The CBI is looking closely at what more businesses, universities and government can do to develop the market for work-based higher skill development.

The current economic context offers a huge opportunity for a major shift in how businesses and universities cooperate, working together to seize the benefits for economy and society. The potential pay-off is huge for all of us.

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: Mathematics. Source: (Flickr).

Neil CarberryNeil Carberry was appointed as Director in February 2011. Neil is responsible for setting out a framework of employment and skills policy that supports the CBI's ambition of making the UK a great place to invest and create jobs. Before becoming director, Neil spent four years as Head of Employment and Pensions Policy and he has previously worked in the CBI's public services team as Head of Public Procurement.