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The Future of Universities: The attraction of UK universities

Sir John O’Reilly, Director General, Knowledge and Innovation, BIS

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, Sir John O’Reilly, Director General of Knowledge and Innovation at BIS shares his views.

Students in Tocil wood

Our universities are one of the UK’s national assets. They have a worldwide reputation for teaching and research and make a valuable contribution to economic growth not just through their employment and expenditure, but as a provider of skilled people; through attracting inward investment; facilitating the innovation ecosystem; supplying workforce development services; supporting business start-ups and commercialisation of research and through civic leadership.

Higher education is an important part of the UK economy. The sector employs more than one per cent of the UK’s total workforce. UK universities generate over a third of their funds from non-public sources and their export earnings exceed £8bn, including expenditure by overseas students.

The UK is already one of the most attractive places in the world to study. We have a 13 per cent share of the international higher education (HE) student market by nationality, and over 75 per cent of institutions provide higher education qualifications overseas. To support growth in this important area, the Government is developing an education exports industrial strategy, which will cover the full range of UK education exports from English language training to further and higher education.

Universities’ income from engagement with business and community is at an unprecedented level, and has more than doubled in real terms since 2001 to £3.43bn per annum. Industry has been attracted to working in the UK by our universities, by our skilled people, by the quality of our research and the ease with which the UK transacts its relationships.

We often look to the USA for lessons on university-business interactions: but the World Economic Forum rated the UK second in the world for university-business collaborations – ahead of the United States. UK higher education institutions (HEIs) generate higher number of patents and more spin-outs per pound of research, and attract a similar proportion of industry funding as US HEIs.

Universities are part of the UK’s national infrastructure. The UK Research Partnership Investment Fund helps universities to accelerate private co-investment in UK university research infrastructure and create long-term research partnerships with businesses and charities. This co-investment model will secure over £1bn, through providing £300m of public money.

The Government is actively seeking to support universities to build strategic relationships with business. However we recognise that working with business is not just about securing finance from the private sector: there are wide range of knowledge exchange activities that occur between academia and business.

Tim Wilson’s review of business-university collaboration told me that there are already excellent links between businesses and universities. But we can do more. This is why BIS has supported the creation of the National Centre for Universities and Business. We don’t think any other country has this facility and we believe it will give us a real competitive edge.

Universities also play a unique and multi-faceted role in local economic development. We need to ensure we realise these benefits and the Government has invited Sir Andrew Witty to lead a review to explore further how universities can work with local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and other local organisations to support growth.

The review will explore the range of ways that universities contribute to their local economies and identify where we have world leading capabilities in our research base that can underpin the sectors and technologies of the industrial strategy, and how we can maximise their impact.


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: Students exploring the University of Warwick campus


Sir John OSir John O’Reilly is Director General of Knowledge and Innovation at BIS.

He was appointed Director General of Knowledge and Innovation in February 2013. John came from Cranfield University where he was Vice Chancellor from December 2006.