Third post on Witty Review and Partnerships for Progress
3. The Diversity of Universities Benefits Growth
The Witty Report states that ‘The full diversity of institutions have a role to play from local SME support and supply chain creation to primary technology leadership and breakthrough invention’. Among the ‘Heat Maps’ in Part 2 of the Report, there are some (courtesy of University Alliance and the HEBCI Survey) that show how the leading universities in consultancy and contract research, delivering CPD and graduate start-ups represent a diverse range of institutional types and locales. Universities like Northampton, Coventry, UWE feature as much as the likes of Exeter, Leeds and Cardiff, for example. The institutions involved in the Jisc BCE Partnerships for Progress were notable for their typological diversity and their spread across the regions, and included FE colleges in a leading role.
Witty recognises that besides providing skilled graduates, universities are lynchpins in local or national networks joining up business and industry with the knowledge base, and he sees a diverse role for universities in his £1Billion Arrow projects proposal (see section 3.13 of the Report), whereby not only research intensives would participate, but others would too, for example in supplying specific skills or expertise and SME engagement capabilities. Witty sees cross-sector partnerships as vital in pursuit of these objectives, as well as a leadership role for universities in bringing other parties together. He also proposes that Business Schools, relatively under-used in the UK, ‘should be incentivised to prioritise working directly with local businesses on workable solutions to practical problems’.
This constitutes another very positive message for the HE sector in general, and the Business School recommendation is undeniably sensible. I would add one observation, though: I am surprised that there is not more explicit emphasis on multidisciplinarity and inter- or transdisciplinary research in universities in the Report. As often noted, transformative innovation is much more likely to occur at the boundaries between disciplines or from combinations of different but complementary disciplines, yet the trend has been one of increasing specialisation in disciplines for many decades.
It is not clear the extent to which the Arrow Projects would draw on transdisciplinary research, but it could be argued that incentives for interdisciplinary research in the UK require enhancement. Also, the humanities are not really much evoked in the Report, yet combinations of expertise and knowledge such as history and maths, chemistry and poetry or engineering and social psychology can help to provide new perspectives and new opportunities which in turn can generate new markets.