How can higher education help solve the productivity puzzle?

unipart_am / 3rd June 2016 / Comments (0)

Highered examined the role of universities in boosting the UK’s productivity.

Knowledge exchange is crucial to fixing the UK’s productivity problems, making universities one of the most important resources for business and government. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) says that universities can “develop ideas about economic trends, issues and solutions and advise policy-makers.”

Universities, therefore, affect all of us in terms of the economy and what’s holding it back: productivity.

A look at the state of management shows us the role higher education can take. According to the London School of Economics’ Growth Commission, the quality of management is a serious concern:

“… the UK is mediocre by international standards, ranked significantly below the ‘premier league’ of countries, such as Germany, Japan and the US. This gap matters because recent evidence suggests that about a third of international productivity differences can be attributed to management.”

Clearly, business schools need to identify and disseminate best management practice. To do this, Professor Keith Glaister of Warwick Business School writes:

“There is a fundamental role for business schools to engage in a research programme that produces a better understanding of the relationship between management practice, productivity and growth. By identifying good management practice business schools can use the output of this research to inform teaching and disseminate best practice. In this way the general level of productivity level will improve, with beneficial effects on economic growth.”

Another area universities play a key role in is innovation, which is “a little bit broken”, according to Richard Jones, pro-vice chancellor for research and innovation at the University of Sheffield.

Jones calls on universities to be ‘ambitious’ in fixing the innovation system. “We should be using the excellent research base we have in the UK’s universities, which has already demonstrated its willingness and ability to work with the private sector for the benefit of our wider economy and society, to rebuild our innovation economy.”

This is happening already with fantastic results, though Jones is right – it needs to be commonplace. Take what’s happening at the University of the West of England, Bristol (UWE Bristol), who administers the Innovation for Growth (14G) programme. This is a sizeable government grant aimed at SMEs. Its purpose: encourage projects at the R&D stage that will create, according to the Independent, “high-value jobs for the future”.

UWE Bristol works with independent business experts to decide which SMEs’ projects have potential. In its first year, £3.3m of investment in 40 SME projects translated into 430 jobs. The Independent reports: “Technologies supported in the first year included recycling plastics into fuel and generating virtual training programmes for pilots.”

That is indeed exciting. So is the work of manufacturer Unipart Group and Coventry University. Their collaboration has resulted in “the faculty on the factory floor”.

The Guardian writes, “The course’s creators believe it is unique in offering a blend of university lectures, workshop teaching and work on real manufacturing tasks. They are floating the £32m collaboration between business and academics as a possible blueprint for other centres, as employers seek to lift UK productivity growth out of the doldrums.”

Carol Burke, managing director of Unipart Manufacturing Group, told The Guardian that already, the results of the collaboration have seen a new fuel rail for the Ford Fox engine and a lightweight exhaust system for Aston Martin.

It’s worth repeating here the advice given by University of Sheffield’s Richard Jones to other universities: “If you haven’t engaged deeply with your local enterprise partnership or combined authority by now, you need to get on that really fast.”

Unipart Group, and the businesses who’ve received grants from UWE Bristol, would agree.


Universities need to be ‘ambitious’ to fix the UK’s innovation system

What can business schools do to drive up the UK’s productivity?

Invest in research to solve the UK’s productivity crisis or we’ll all pay

Factory degrees students learn from the Unipart Way

Author: Frank Nigriello
Director of Corporate Affairs at Unipart Group Ltd

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