The UK government has given universities something to sink their teeth into. Prime Minister Theresa May's plan for a national industrial strategy offers the higher education sector an excellent opportunity to bring precision to the project, and to emphasise its role in a 21st century knowledge economy.
This industrial strategy is positive. It recognises that the UK must become more innovative and build on its world-leading science base; that it must develop its skills-base; that it must create the right institutions to bring together sectors and places; and that it must cultivate its world-leading sectors.
It is worth remembering that all of these things are universities' core business. And the consultation that will now help shape the policy should be a moment to make that point vigorously. Universities must argue that it makes little sense to create new institutions for innovation, and to bring entrepreneurs and innovators together, when in most cities, and all regions, universities already do some of this.
Certainly, there is room for our academic institutions to do more – for a start, leadership teams should listen to local and regional businesses about what else is needed. But the best place for innovation is where people with different skills come together. If universities build on their existing relationships with employers, skills organisations and further education colleges, then they could form a network of ideal hubs.
Taking the lead
The government seems to draw a sharp distinction between academic and technical education. This distinction is not one we should allow to gain currency and it is becoming increasingly irrelevant anyway. Some of the most august institutions have always taught "technical" subjects like engineering and medicine and engaged in partnerships with business and industry.
Evidence suggests that one of the best routes to long-term increases in productivity is through more highly-skilled graduates. The problems the UK faces, then, are two-fold. First, it must develop more flexible routes to university so that more people can access the opportunities on offer at appropriate stages of their lives. Second, universities must offer the right courses to develop the skills employers need and deliver those courses in more accessible ways. Take the example of Degree Apprenticeships, designed to develop the skills of those who want to combine work and study. You will start to see more of these in the next academic year.
There are other ways that universities are already addressing other aspects of this. Portsmouth's University Technical College is focused on engineering and is run in partnership with the Royal Navy, Portsmouth City Council, and the defence firms BAE Systems and QinetiQ. And there are plenty of other University Technical College's around the country doing similar work.
Changes to higher education – in particular the removal of student number controls – are also causing universities to reform their offer to students. Creativity is vital to economic success in a knowledge economy and for this students must learn to become comfortable collaborating with others on subjects outside their academic specialism. One key element will be more diverse options, so English literature students can take courses in computer programming and engineers can study philosophy. Narrow over-specialisation is one of the curses of England's education system and it risks re-enforcing this if it focuses only on STEM subjects and technical education as do the industrial strategy proposals.
The goal for universities must be to offer more routes to higher education to people who currently do not go to university and improve the all-round education of those who do, all the while improving partnerships with employers. Not only are universities capable of doing this but utilising their expertise will be more cost-effective. The sector would certainly be able to deliver improvements sooner than the government's plan to spend £170m to create new and untried "Institutes of Technology".
Universities also need to convince the government to join the dots between an industrial strategy and its higher education policies. The government wants the UK to be better at commercialising its world-class, basic research. But the next assessment of universities' research will require them to include all academic staff, rather then being able to exclude some people as they have previously. That will have the effect of making universities re-balance their staff's priorities so that there is more focus only on peer-reviewed research and less on outward-facing activities like business collaborations.
The plan for the Prime Minister's industrial strategy talks about "cultivating" certain sectors: life sciences, low carbon vehicles and others. Universities are themselves a world-leading export sector which will play a huge role in delivering Theresa May's strategy.
However, talk of "cultivating" the competitive advantage of UK universities is notably absent in the government's rhetoric around the Higher Education and Research Bill. If universities are to compete globally, they need the right support to strengthen their brand. Implied threats on international student numbers, for instance, do nothing but help their competitors.
None of this should hide the challenges that Britain's new industrial strategy presents to the university sector. It does need to do more to equip its students with the right skills, to open its doors wider to all who can benefit from a university education, and to close the gap between its rhetoric and the reality about its role in local and regional economies. It now has an opportunity to show that it can and will do this.