Skip to main content

The Future of Universities: Universities do respond to business in the UK

Professor Dame Julia King, Vice-Chancellor at Aston University

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, Professor Dame Julia King discusses the impact of universities on the business world.

A wall

In the UK this year an amazing collection of examples of the impact of universities on the business world is being put together for our Research Excellence Framework exercise. If there was any real doubt about the value of university contributions to economic growth and business success these stories will dispel the myth. From major corporations siting their R&D facilities inside and alongside universities to ensure that their technology is at the cutting edge, to tiny companies having their immediate challenges solved by high quality advice from experts, the spectrum of different ways of working together that is evidenced by this exercise is impressive.

Too often universities are criticised for not providing employable graduates. In our current economic climate, undergraduates and postgraduates are even more actively engaged in seeking real experience of working with businesses through placements, collaborative research and increasingly setting up their own start-up companies. The evidence, from our programmes at Aston University, is very strong that incorporating extended placement activity within an undergraduate course increases the employability of the student and allows an ‘extended interview’ process for the employer. Universities are working hard to improve employability skills but we also need businesses to create high quality opportunities for placements. And it is easy to overlook the value of new graduates’ expertise in social media to enhance the marketing and innovation capability of companies – a skill which is second nature to them.

Big companies know how to get value from universities and there are real challenges for smaller companies. At Aston, our research suggests that medium-sized companies – around 20-50 employees – may hold the key to growth. The Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses programme, led for the Midlands by Aston Business School, is supporting entrepreneur-led small and medium-sized business to expand and grow. We are now working with our fourth cohort of companies, with over 120 ‘graduates’ joining an alumni and networking organisation. There is a real thirst amongst these businesses to super charge their strategies for expansion. All have distinctive products or brands, have identified new markets, are generating revenue and improving their cash position. But they have not previously thought of bringing forward their five or ten year plan to exploit favourable market opportunities. The programme gives them the confidence and the ability to do just that, with practical help to improve financial planning, customer segmentation and marketing. After 18 months the programme has attracted a wide range of companies, from partners in the automotive supply chain to creative and digital agencies, social enterprises and food service brands. The learning and teaching methods involve total commitment, engagement and immersion; these are practical sessions not lectures.

The Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses programme is a leading example of how a research-led university, with real world applicable knowledge, is able to work together with entrepreneur-led business to create growth and employment. The expertise of Aston University in bringing enterprise to the fore has been recognised by the creation of the UK’s first Enterprise Research Centre – in partnership with The University of Warwick – which will help many other businesses benefit from success.

The Centre will also have a significant role in advising government around strategies for growth, so we are confident that in the near future, medium-sized business may get the attention and support it warrants.


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.

Main image: Birmingham Bullring. Source: Flickr. Published under the creative commons license.


Julia KingAfter sixteen years as an academic researcher and university lecturer at Cambridge and Nottingham universities, Julia King joined Rolls-Royce plc in 1994. At Rolls-Royce she held a number of senior executive appointments, including Director of Advanced Engineering for the Industrial Power Group, Managing Director of the Fan Systems Business, and Engineering Director for the Marine Business. In 2002, Julia became Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics, and in 2004 she returned to academia as Principal of the Engineering Faculty at Imperial College, London. In December 2006 she became Vice-Chancellor of Aston University.


Julia is a member of the Board of UniversitiesUK and Chair of its Employability, Business & Industry Policy Network, and a Council member of the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council.