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New Thinking Required for Innovation and Growth

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In his recent Government growth review 'No Stone Unturned in pursuit of Growth,' Lord Heseltine made a number of recommendations about how universities can contribute to economic growth in the UK. It is now widely accepted that universities are key drivers of the economy, advancing research and innovation, preparing graduates and others to succeed in our fast-paced, inter-connected global society, and are a key export industry, promoting the UK's knowledge and overall brand overseas. But whilst I strongly support Lord Heseltine's recommendations, there is more we as universities can do to deliver sustainable growth.

On skills, the review recommends that business and industry work with universities to ensure courses are relevant and provide the specific skills for which there is demand, alongside wider leadership and teamwork skills. Universities are already doing this and have been for years, but with little credit for it or attention from government or funding agencies. We've seen funding for Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and Higher Education Innovation Funding slashed and there is no mention of business engagement in the Key Information Set statistics for students or the myriad of league tables. The review also suggests that business should consider funding up to half of a student's course fees in return for a commitment by graduates to work in their sponsor employer for a fixed number of years. Many businesses already offer a 'golden handshake' or indeed support a student through a scholarship while they are studying or through a placement so that they get the cream of the crop and a graduate who is already 'tuned in' to their culture. On research, Heseltine recommends that as a nation we should "work to increase inward investment on the back of our world-renowned research excellence." Again, this isn't new as UK universities have been reaching out across Europe through Framework funding and indeed further afield under the UKTI and British Council to connect with research organisations across the globe.

So while the focus is welcome, there is nothing really that new here. Business and industry have been working with higher education institutions for many years, though admittedly to varying extents across the sector. This hasn't stopped a number of government and independent reviews calling for increased interactions, for example with the model of co-funding student fees by employers gaining high-profile support in the Leitch Review of Skills back in 2006 and more recently in the Wilson Review of Business-University Collaboration. Many universities already have a long history of working directly with employers and professional bodies with students benefitting from guest lectures, access to real-world case studies, and work experience and placement years alongside career advice and preparation through mock interviews and CV clinics. Most universities have professionally accredited programmes and advisory boards filled with practitioners and business leaders of repute.

What we really need are some new ideas, ideas that can stimulate growth in a more coherent way that connects businesses with universities across regional networks. One new idea developed at Plymouth University is the Growth Acceleration and Investment Network (GAIN). This model adopts a new approach, creating an 'ecosystem' for business growth which draws upon our university's role as an 'anchor' institution within the region. Support for business is available in a dynamic way from the university at all stages including business start-up incubation centres on campus, science and innovation parks for small and medium size enterprises, and access to the latest research facilities to support businesses' research and development activities. Combining this with access to targeted funding schemes such as Plymouth's Regional Growth Fund project and connections to our students and graduates, means that the university can offer something to almost every business at every stage of growth.

But the key success factor in this model is that the network offer is tailored to compliment the strengths and needs of our regional economy and those of the university. And this is where Lord Heseltine's recommendation to devolve more funding to the local/regional level is so powerful and will serve to liberate growth. But it is essential that we explicitly involve universities here given their role in the knowledge economy and ability to create partnerships. To deliver successful and sustainable economic growth we need to work together in regional networks of partners which come together with shared strengths and in common cause.

For more information on the Growth Acceleration and Investment Network (GAIN) go to www.gaininbusiness.com