Britain Unleashed: our world-class universities can lead us to prosperity

Britain’s (UK) universities are international powerhouses of research, innovation and education – used properly they can and will sustain immediate and long term economic prosperity, says Stephen Caddick.

The Olympics are upon us. Much will be made of the extraordinary personal triumphs of the sportsmen and women who will be going for gold over the next two weeks. The contrast with the British economy, however, could not be more different: despite a diet of austerity, it remains flabby and unfit. Our international competitors, meanwhile, continue to grow their economies through a combination of discipline, training and strategic investment in the latest cutting-edge technology.

It doesn’t have to be this way. London, and Britain, has champions in a class of their own: our universities. These internationally renowned institutions have many of the world’s leaders in research – people who have some of the best ideas in the world, who make some of the most important discoveries, create some of the most important knowledge, and develop some of the most significant innovations.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, Peter Higgs, the world-famous physicist, and any number of medical researchers responsible for discoveries that give us the prospect of a long and healthy life, are just a few examples. If there were an Olympic games for research, the UK would be regularly picking up gold medals.

Our universities are big business – as a sector we turn over billions, and our direct contribution to the economy is profound. Often our universities are the most important contributor to a local economy in terms of employment, and they educate some of the brightest minds, ready to become the next generation of entrepreneurs, captains of industry, academics and innovators.

Nevertheless, too often universities are perceived – within and without – as ivory towers, existing outside the economy, teaching subjects with little or no application for business and sucking in billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money with little tangible benefit. But if we are to get the most from our universities, this perception must be challenged. For years, universities have been learning from, contributing to and building businesses. We must encourage our universities to be entrepreneurial, to take action to reap benefits for us all.

First and foremost, universities must support entrepreneurs. This means opening our doors and nurturing small business on our doorsteps by offering access to our world-leading research expertise. We can and do run programmes to teach business skills, free of charge. It means opening and running business incubators and accelerators. Indeed, it means supporting academics who want to spin out companies and commercialise their research into the British success stories of the future – especially in our areas of traditional strengths like technology, health care and manufacturing, not to mention our creative industries.

Above all, it means encouraging our students to take the risk of starting their own businesses and to recognise that the path to success is almost certain to be littered with early failures. These failures provide vital lessons for entrepreneurs; just ask James Dyson, who recently remarked that it took him more than 5,000 attempts to hone his bagless vacuum cleaner. It is vital we offer support to all students who want to give it a try.

Then, when we see success, we need to provide the fuel to go the distance. Our student entrepreneurs are some of the best in the world, and it can’t be right that they are forced overseas to get investment – investment which could have provided jobs and growth here in the UK.

Universities have to go further in working even more closely with established businesses and supporting their growth, too. We need to encourage investment from overseas corporations, by forging collaborative partnerships as UCL and Imperial College did recently with Intel. We need to make the UK the number one place in the world for collaboration using the might of our research community to help world class businesses. This does not mean perverting the course of basic research, but rather recognising the value that can accrue to both universities and industry that collaborate.

To my mind, the most important change we need to make in order to get the best out of our universities is cultural. We need to get past the idea that academics can’t innovate, commercialise, or collaborate. We can and we do – but we have the opportunity to do so much more. To do so we need to create opportunities for entrepreneurs, academics, researchers, and large corporations to work together to exploit new research in radical and potentially unpredictable ways.

We need to tackle the tendency of people to become isolated in one type of institution, and enable people to move much more freely between universities, corporations and small businesses than they can now. Creating centres where entrepreneurial individuals from different organisations could work with consumers – in other words, the market – and other users to innovate together would be a good start. Cutting red tape around VAT, which currently hinders setting up such institutions, would be vital.

The Olympics will no doubt inspire a new generation of British sportsmen and women. We must do the same with our young people and businesses, encouraging them to once again take risks and see entrepreneurship as a challenge with rich rewards. Many individuals in our universities have the same commitment and talent to the Olympians we will admire in the coming weeks. We have the raw talent to be a world leading economy. Let’s work together – business, universities, public and private sector, entrepreneurs and innovators – for a rejuvenated economy fit for the podium on any world stage.

Professor Stephen Caddick is VP Enterprise at University College London

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