Too often the local and global missions of a university as seen as distinct. Universities have been poor at describing what the benefits of having a globally connected university are to their locality. We (universities, businesses and local institutions) have also not exploited the potential sufficiently. We need to harness the value of having universities that are grounded in their local community, but have a global outlook.
There are clear advantages to the local community for having an international university on their doorstep. Some are obvious: international students are estimated to contribute £25.8b to the economy while they are in the UK, much is spent locally. The presence of international students allows the university to continue to run programmes in important subjects such as electrical engineering – these would not be viable relying solely on the UK home student market, and provide vital skills for local industry. International students also contribute in other ways; last year our overseas students at Brunel volunteered a total of 2788 hours – on a wide range of projects in our local community.
International students can provide expertise to local industry. At Brunel we run a Co-Innovate programme that teams students with local SMEs to work on real issues or problems that those businesses have. The students, backed up by the academics in Brunel, give their time, energy, academic knowledge and talent to the business. In return they get the opportunity to learn how business works, and a fantastic education in applied research.
To give one example of how an international student has helped local business; Mixed Freight Ltd, a growing innovative logistics company, has worked with students from China, Uganda, Germany as well as the UK to help them develop their digital skills and marketing approach in preparation for the expansion of Heathrow. This company does not have a tradition of employing graduates and had a fairly traditional approach to the industry. Lu Gan from China helped the company move into ecommerce with China, which now plays a significant part in their business. Felix Deopike from Germany provided 600 hours of work for the company and together with another international student helped develop their Business Management Strategy model. In the words of the CEO, “Felix and other students have helped the company open its eyes and explore new opportunities.” It also happens that the benefit is two way – on graduation Felix got a job with Accenture in Norway, crediting his experience with Mixed Freight as a key factor in his employment.
Universities also can benefit local companies through their global research collaborations. For example, Brunel has set up BICari (Brunel India Consortia for the Acceleration of Research Impact.) The consortium is made up of academics and industry SMEs tackling the challenges arising in India resulting from the introduction of new stringent engine emissions regulations through the use of innovative technologies. Through BICari SMEs, such as BHFTech, have been made aware of the opportunities in India, introduced to key players in the Indian market and, under the leadership of Brunel, are exploring commercial opportunities.
The research that is carried out in universities with international partners can also help to attract inward investment into the UK. Boeing’s collaboration with the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre has led to them constructing a new manufacturing facility, the first in Europe, which will produce components for Boeing’s Next-Generation 737, 737 MAX and 777 aeroplanes. This will not only provide direct employment in Sheffield, but also enhance skills and high technology expertise in the region.
We need to continually think about the local dimension of universities when forging international partnerships. At Brunel one of the key factors that we consider when looking at potential partner universities is the nature of the businesses and industry that they work with. We seek to see if there are advantages to us in terms of research, education or work placements for our students in involving the partners. Potential partners ask the same question of us. Our optimal collaboration involves not just our partner university, but also our associated partners.
Collaborations between UK universities and international partner universities should optimally include the ‘penumbra’ of local partners that the universities have , including businesses, local charities, healthcare providers and others. This opens up opportunities for the two universities to work with each other’s local partners, for research, student work placements and knowledge transfer.
We need to expand this model and see how we can facilitate links between the businesses that are in the penumbra of our partner universities. Some of these partnerships may not need continued university involvement and will not directly benefit the university. However, if we can add value to our local communities by catalysing industry – industry links across international boundaries then we will be serving our local communities.
University partnerships should seek to facilitate collaboration between the local partners that they bring to the relationship. Initially these partnerships will include the university (top), but in time they may develop independently of the two universities.
How can we do this? All too often we (universities and business) do not take advantage of the international know-how and experience that is within universities. At a very simple level, universities should be providing local businesses with training and knowledge about making international links. Many SMEs just do not have the capacity to acquire that knowledge themselves, but is relatively simple for universities to run workshops and provide briefing sessions, possibly in conjunction with local chambers of commerce.
At Brunel, we are developing a partnership with Tampere University of Technology (TUT) in Finland. One of the aims is to develop multilateral collaborations involving the local industry partners of both universities, starting with a project bringing together regional UK and Finnish water companies with a shared objective of transitioning water services to the circular economy. Whilst catalysed by the Brunel-TUT collaboration, we expect that the companies will develop their own independent relationships linked to mutual commercial interests and challenges.
Awareness that universities have the ability to add value to their businesses should encourage them to approach universities to see if they have the necessary expertise – or know someone that does. Organisations such as National centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) can be used to facilitate matchmaking between companies and universities with complementary interests.
Universities and local businesses should also be more willing to raise awareness of each other. When I give talks to overseas universities I describe the advantages of West London as a location to do business. However, this effort pales into insignificance when compared to what happens in other countries. Recently, when I visited a potential partner university in China, the very first place they took us to was to an exhibition hall run by the local government. The exhibition extolled the advantages of doing business in that area, including the transport links, the other business in the area, the innovation parks and also how the local universities worked to support business. The university understood their role in the local business ecosystem, as did local government. Both were keen to show this to potential international partners.
We should be doing more in the UK to harness our universities global reach (and brand) to the benefit of our local businesses. Universities are locally rooted, but globally connected, which makes us a fantastic and underused resource for business.