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The Future of Universities: The Art of Partnership

Dame Helen Alexander, Chancellor of the University of Southampton

Published in June 2013

What’s next for universities? With the sector diversifying into online learning, not to mention the many varied opportunities offered by further and higher education colleges, it’s become harder to say what a university will look like in the future. In March 2013, leading academics and experts, organisations, and international student leaders at Warwick Universities Summit 2013 tackled the issue of universities in 2025. Speakers from across the sector discussed topics such as funding and widening access, and what the value of the global public university should be in a rapidly developing world. Here, Dame Helen Alexander, Chancellor of the University of Southampton, shares her views.

The University of Southampton, where I am chancellor, experiences the whole range of interactions with business at regional, national and international levels. The first, and the hardest to quantify, is the production of highly educated and trained people. Degree programmes and professional training all develop people with the skills and qualities which businesses need. As with many universities, there are companies who rely on our university to produce the graduates they require, and many work with us on developing the curricula or offering work experience.

A woman in a gallery

Companies with good experience of a university, and the graduates it produces, often take the next step in the relationship; they identify individual projects where the university can help their business to develop further. To be successful, universities must see such contract research as a key part of their mission. They need both academic staff who understand and can deliver to business requirements and timescales, and processes which make such contract research easier to deliver within a busy university environment. The universities who are best at doing this, Southampton included, have developed this capability over many decades. They need staff with significant experience in working with companies, and often have dedicated units for contract research. It is essential that these units stay deeply connected to the rest of the university, and can draw upon expertise from across the disciplines.

True partnerships between companies and universities come after many years of working together, where a synergy develops as both sides understand the other’s needs. Sometimes the company in question has a standard model for how to do this. Rolls Royce, for instance, has established University Technology Centres in higher education institutions (HEIs) across the world, each focussing on a different set of technological or engineering problems. The University of Southampton hosts two such centres (in gas turbine noise and computational engineering). Other major companies such as Microsoft, BAE and Unilever do the same.

The strongest partnerships of all are achieved when a company and a university find they are almost mutually co-dependent, and both adapt their own systems and structures to make the partnership stronger. In Southampton, we have a relationship with Lloyd’s Register dating back more than 40 years, which has passed through all of the stages outlined above. As a result, we are, together, constructing a new campus, which will co-locate 400 engineers from Lloyd’s Register, with engineers and scientists from the University. The two partners are sharing the £115m cost in a project heralded as the largest such business-focused endeavour in any UK university. And we are now using that development as a platform to work with them in Singapore, in the USA and around the world.

Such partnerships bring some of the greatest business impacts from universities. Partnership brings huge rewards, but is hard, time-consuming and involves compromise. You only become the partner of someone you know well. The trust, the confidence, the comfort of working together in this way builds slowly. You can’t rush it.


For more from the Knowledge Centre's Global Universities Summit blog, which focussed on the issues in higher education ahead of the 2013 Global University Summit, please click here.

The Global University Summit 2013 was hosted by the University of Warwick in Whitehall, London.

Image: Southampton University WSA Degree Show Preparation 2008. Source: (Flickr)


Dame HelenDame Helen Alexander is Chancellor of the University of Southampton and chairperson of UBM plc, Incisive Media and the Port of London Authority. Dame Helen was president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) until June 2011. Dame Helen was chief executive of the Economist Group until 2008, having joined the company in 1985 and been managing director of the Economist Intelligence Unit from 1993 to 1997.