Announced less than eight months ago in the Higher Education White Paper, the Wilson Review has now been published. The reaction to such a report is often revealing, offering insights into the nature and scale of the challenge that the review was set up to address that the document itself may not bring out. So it was with Wilson. The review was ambitious in its scope, ranging from student enterprise and employability to collaborative research to economic development. There were substantive and reflective recommendations in every domain, informed by the principle that achieving the goal of ‘making the UK the best place in the world for university-industry collaboration’ required excellence across the board.
“The key is engagement, to individual and collective benefit.”
Engagement with a report as extensive as Wilson inevitably involves being selective. Many newspapers focused on work experience, with the Guardian and Times Higher leading their article with internships. One recommendation concerned with ensuring companies have access to the widest possible pool of talent from which to select those graduates with the best fit to business needs provided a link for the Telegraph to concerns with the ‘downgrading’ of academic excellence raised during the controversy over Prof Ebdon’s appointment as Director of OFFA.
But there are consequences to selectivity. Things can, of course, be missed and the review’s clear messages about universities and economic development – particularly with regard to LEPs, Enterprise Zones and inward investment – did not receive much attention. There is a more substantial concern, however, in the case of Wilson.
Sir Tim has been a longstanding advocate of differentiation in the sector and his review invites universities to consider the recommendations through the lens of institutional mission. So an informed selectivity in responding to this agenda, conditioned by the ethos of the organisation and communicated effectively to inform student choice, is entirely appropriate. What the review has tried to tackle, however, is a politicised selectivity, where competitiveness or (perceived) conflicting interests prevents real engagement with the issues and inhibits collaboration.
The review argues that we need to move out of an environment where universities and businesses are critical of each other when speaking to government (while collaborating in practice) and where HEIs are unable or unwilling to refer to the strengths of others in the interests of the sector. These habits have led to a disconnect between perception and reality and also an under-exploitation of universities locally, nationally and internationally.
“To achieve world-class status in university-business collaboration, action needs to be taken by universities and businesses themselves.”
So the real work starts now. There are no big levers of funding or regulation. Government has been asked to look at introducing some incentives (or removing disincentives), for example, in the area of student work experience, but to achieve world-class status in university-business collaboration, action needs to be taken by universities and businesses themselves. Action may only mean a review of processes to check for effectiveness; it may mean a reformulation of strategy, or even major innovation. The key is engagement, to individual and collective benefit.
Trudy Norris-Grey, who acted as an editor to the review alongside Malcolm Skingle, made a powerful call at the Alliance event on 1 March for taking Wilson ‘on the road’. She reminded us that there is, or should be, a new game in town. Universities and businesses can do better than just competing to carve up the existing marketplace. We can collaborate to make a bigger one, one in which our complementary strengths are recognised and put to use. We will know we’ve succeeded if the next review concludes that universities are at the heart of business development and economic growth, on the local and the global stage.