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The UK's Industrial Strategy Must Have Higher Education At Its Heart

24/01/2017 12:31 | Updated 25 January 2017

With the Government's latest thinking on Industrial Strategy now published, it is worth remembering that UK Universities are ready to contribute vital input. The UK's Higher Education sector is the envy of the world, and the Government could make use of the sheer amount of knowledge our universities cultivate and communicate.

Universities are accustomed to thinking 10 -15 years out, the very perspective which is central to a national industrial strategy. A good and successful example of this thinking from across the Atlantic can be seen in the 5 key challenges for the next decade which are advanced by the NSF in the US.

The industrial landscape is shifting at an alarming rate. A recent report by the World Economic Forum suggests that technological developments and disruptive market changes could lead to the loss of 7.1million jobs by 2020. Two thirds of those jobs, the report states, could be lost in routine, white collar, office roles, and it goes on to predict the growth of employment in computing, mathematics, architecture and engineering related fields.

From automation to the rise of Artificial Intelligence, the major technological and economic shifts predicted could have a significant impact on how we work and live. In the UK, while Life Sciences and the Aero/Auto Industries appear well organised and are in a good position to respond to the forthcoming Green paper, the Creative and digital area which is, and will be, a huge contributor to the economy of the future appears fragmented, with multiple trade and representative professional and subject associations. This does not present the much needed, coordinated and clear message to Government.

From my conversations with Researchers and other Vice Chancellors I am confident that Universities will be actively engaged in the discussion, contributing to the Strategy as it progresses and understanding the future requirements of industry so that they adapt their curriculums accordingly.

Take cyber, for example. Cyber security is an increasingly important requirement for global business and modern society. In order to meet the demands of the future, we require new understandings, of governance, regulation, partnerships, skills, and tools. Already, at my University, 95% of students who study cyber security get a job straight away, a bigger proportion than for most other subjects, as the market has an urgent need for people with the skills to protect infrastructures and networks. The recent examples of hacking at telephone companies in the UK, and political parties in the US demonstrate the consequences of not being fully on top of this. Similarly, in the next two decades, there will be an urgent need for creative research leading to the next generation of cyber security capability. This is just one area with potentially huge implications for the prosperity and security of the UK where universities have a vital contribution to make.

Another important factor often overlooked is how universities play a more direct role, not just in the knowledge economy, but in the economy in general. For every 100 jobs created in Higher Education, a further 117 are created in the wider economy. We often talk about graduate jobs, or how the graduate jobs market is over-subscribed. But this fails to appreciate the fact that many graduates go on to create jobs. It is not a zero-sum game. Just look at university business incubators, which help enterprising students get their businesses off the ground - creating SMEs fuelled by smart people exposed to the cutting edge of knowledge, who can drive the economy forward like no other. These start-up communities add value in other areas, too. Last year, London Met's business incubator, Accelerator, found that nearly 80% of start-ups fear that Brexit will have a negative impact on investment opportunities, and 86% believe there will be a negative impact on being able to hire the right people for their needs. All the more reason to develop an Industrial Strategy and focus in training for the skills of the future and creating opportunities that will encourage, not deter or stifle, entrepreneurship.

The strength of the UK as a world-leading educational exporter should also be championed in the industrial strategy. The UK is home to exceptional universities and people travel from so many different countries to experience our Higher Education system. The links universities build internationally - whether through partnerships, overseas campuses or recruiting international students - can have a positive impact in terms of soft-power. UK universities can play an increasingly important role in fostering international relationships and I hope that the strategic importance of the Higher Education sector will be reflected in the Industrial Strategy as the Government moves forward with its proposals.

Prudence is as necessary though. Experience of failed strategies of the past has taught us that well intentioned interventions can quickly become counter-productive. An industrial Strategy should not prop up uncompetitive industries which fail to evolve. We need look no further than the UK auto industry three decades ago. The Industrial Strategy must be visionary, have momentum and be rooted in the real world. To achieve this, I believe that Higher Education must be at the heart of the strategy given the impact on skills, the link with entrepreneurialism and the strategic international importance of the sector.

I'm fortunate to work alongside amazing students and staff who are changing the world on a daily basis. UK universities have a lot to offer UK Plc, and can help us steer safely through the choppy waters ahead.

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