Spanning the pillars: How HE can turn industrial strategy into action 

A guest blog by Professor John Latham is Vice-Chancellor of Coventry University and Chair of the University Alliance mission group.

The Government’s industrial strategy is good news for Higher Education. Its 10 pillars read like a check-list for how universities can boost the British economy after Brexit.

But not if we stand still like pillars. Our sector has an opportunity. We will benefit greatly if we can adapt and act now. If we do not, we run the risk of the market finding others who will give business and industry what they want.Recently I gave evidence to two parliamentary select committees: the Education Select Committee on Brexit and the Business Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee. I told MPs universities will be key to the success of an industrial strategy. We could provide the places to turn strategy into action. The 10 pillars are open to consultation. Four stand out to me as platforms for growth for Higher Education:

  • Investing in science, research and innovation

Commercialising our world-leading science base is right. Strong research is a must. But business and industry also want near-market work – that is to say, innovation with more immediate results. We need more places where business can join with experts and students to improve an existing product (e.g. an exhaust pipe) and make it even better (i.e. lighter, stronger, more ecological).

Near-market work is scale-able and sustainable. It creates jobs too. Some universities are already working this way.

Partnerships on the factory floor, like Coventry’s Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering with Unipart or the University of Lincoln’s partnership on campus with Siemens, allow innovation, experimentation and study to happen at the same time. Engineering undergraduates get their hands on an engine from day one.

At Coventry we are building the National Transport Design Centre. Its aim is to bring manufacturers and researchers for road, rail, sea and air under one roof to innovate. Its partners are today’s producers. This is the kind of project I hope the new industrial strategy will support.

I would like investment in science to strike a balance between invention, discovery and innovation. We need short-term gains as well as long-term success.

  • Developing skills

A natural fit for universities. Boosting STEM, increasing access, and linking up research-business-skills are solid ground for our sector.

But the strategy also mentions technical education? What about that? Life-long learning and flexible degrees? And how deeply do we reach into schools beyond looking for recruitment? Universities could have a role here too. It is a good time to challenge where the boundaries lie.

My university is looking at developing our own Multi-Academy Trust as a way to strengthen connections with secondary education. This is as much to respond to the needs of the local economy as good community engagement.

We need to re-train the workforce already earning too. Our College model lets study fit around full-time work. We have opened colleges in the West Midlands, Scarborough and will open in Dagenham later this year.

Each has been developed in consultation with the local authority. We wanted our educational offer to match what they identified and needed locally.

  • Driving growth across the whole country

The strategy’s text says it well: “We will create a framework to build on the particular strengths of different places and address factors that hold places back…”

Devolution is key here. Local decision-making will matter. And universities are well-placed nationwide to contribute. Our sector often has data and research capacity to help decision-makers. Universities are able to tailor their work to meet local and regional demands. In my region the new West Midlands Combined Authority has begun its work.

We established the West Midlands Combined Universities (in partnership with Birmingham City University and the University of Wolverhampton) to offer the new devolved authority the capacity it needs for research, skills development and – well, whatever else.

We have extended this principle with colleagues in the East Midlands under the Midlands Enterprise Universities, providing direct support to the Midlands Engine.

  • Creating the right institutions to bring together sectors and places

Bringing together sectors and places rounds off my abridged list.

I would argue the UK already has the right institutions to do this well. They are called universities.

We are where place, academia, teaching and industry meet.

But it is clear from the strategy that we won’t have it all our way.

The Government says it wants to see new challengers too. It is therefore incumbent on our sector to get ready and contribute to the consultation.

I strongly believe universities are the best-placed institutions to help turn industrial strategy into action – to bridge the spans between its pillars – but we must adapt and act now to take our place.



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