News: Report in UK highlights role of universities in public and private sector

UUKUniversities UK (UUK) has published a new report examining the role of UK universities in the economy. Universities UK was established in 1918 and is a network of 133 executive heads (vice-chancellors/principals) of universities in the UK. The organization is funded through its members and works as an advocate for the sector.

The new report is a part of their series regarding “The funding environment for universities”, with emphasis in this issue being on economic development, regional growth and labour market issues.

Examining national data, the report rather explicitly places higher education to a market relevant position, identifying the sector as a “high-growth UK export industry”, aside having a role in skills production and innovation. The report collected data for 2011-2012 year and highlights that the sector generated over 100 billion euros in output, employing over 375 000 people. Together with additional jobs that are dependent on universities, the sector stands fro 2,7% of UK employment in 2011.

The report further highlights the role of universities in innovation and knowledge production (knowledge exchange, commercialization, indirect innovation and network creation, and entrepreneurship support services), as well as producing the necessary skills. The report highlights that: “The UK is seeing a growth in high-wage analytical, non-routine jobs; an expansion ofmanual low-wage roles; and a contraction of middle-wage jobs” (p.4), emphasizing the role of universities in this shift. In the press release of the report, UUK cites Dame Julia Goodfellow, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, who highlights: “The UK must ensure that the higher-level skills required in the labour market are met and our universities have an important role to play in meeting this demand, both through their more traditional model of three-year undergraduate university study, and by developing other routes  to higher skills.” She continues further: “Universities are a globally recognised source of innovation and research and, in turn, attract direct foreign investment. They generate knowledge and discovery that can boost both the private and the public sectors.

While focusing on the changing labour market needs, the report also suggests that universities have a role to play in social mobility as there has been an increase in participation rates by those from most disadvantaged groups – the number the report cites is 43% rise in this group. At the same time, the HEFCE 2013 Trends report that is cited as a source also highlights that there has been a 26% increase in overall participation rates, and while some progress has been made, there is still a large disparity between the most advantaged and disadvantaged groups, and that:Young people in the most disadvantaged areas would need to treble their participation rate in order to match the rate of those from the most advantaged areas.” One could thus argue that while there has been a step in the right direction in reducing the gap, there is still more work to be done to reduce the gap further.

In a sense, while based on various sources of empirical data, the Universities UK report can to some extent also be seen as advocacy for emphasizing the role of universities role in economic development. The report also highlights a number of “best practice” examples from the sector in tackling some of the issues highlighted. Overall, the universities function as “investment magnets” and “global economic ambassadors”, they are “economic and civic leaders and place-shapers”, “creating prosperity and well-being”, while “raising aspiration” and supporting social mobility, being “talent builders and attractors”. By anticipating future needs, universities become “knowledge pioneers”. Packed with language more reminiscent of strategy plans and mission statements, the report also highlights three main strengths of the UK system: a) autonomy combined with accountability (with dual support system for research highlighted as a crucial element), b) system diversity where institutions are heterogeneous and with build on individual strengths; c) sustainability that is assured by financial stability. Having in mind that the report is produced by an organization representing the sector, this can be seen as an interesting self-evaluation.