Whilst there are some that still consider universities to be ivory towers that are largely out of touch with the world of business and industry, the reality is that the higher education sector is now an active participant and contributor in driving forward local, regional and national economies around the World.

The best examples globally of this phenomenon are to be found in the USA.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is currently ranked the best university in the World and with seventy-six Nobel Prize laureates having been affiliated with MIT and £400m spent on world-class research every year, it has become a real powerhouse for the generation of new knowledge.

Yet this knowledge does not remain in the laboratory and the classroom. Instead, it is used to create prosperity in the economy. In fact, it has been estimated that the 26,000 companies founded by MIT alumni currently employ about 3.3 million people and generate annual world sales of £1.5 trillion.

On the other side of America, Stanford University is also seen as a major producer of wealth from the knowledge it creates.

Being based in the heart of Silicon Valley in California, it is not surprising that its graduates have founded, built or led thousands of businesses including some of the world’s most recognised companies such as Google, Nike, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard and Gap. As a result, it has created a specific initiative – the Stanford Technology Ventures Program - that is dedicated to accelerating high-technology entrepreneurship within the university.

But it is not only in America that we find enterprising behaviour being encouraged by higher education institutions.

For example, the University of Cambridge, despite being over 800 years old, has overcome its traditional academic focus to create an unexpected entrepreneurial culture. This has been achieved by celebrating enterprising role models amongst academic staff, encouraging a mix of innovation activities across campus, and giving faculty the freedom to devote time to entrepreneurial ideas.

As a result, over a thousand technology and biotechnology companies have been created to take advantage of the knowledge emerging from the University.

In Finland, the newly created Aalto University has established an incredibly powerful engagement by its student population in enterprise and innovation activities.

Since it was created in 2010, it has worked with entrepreneurs and other business organisations to develop new resources. One such example is the annual SLUSH conference, which brings together early-stage start-ups to meet top-tier venture capitalists and media from around the world. This event recently gathered more than 7,000 attendees and 1,200 companies from 68 countries for two days in Helsinki, making it the biggest celebration of entrepreneurship of its kind in Europe and creating a start-up culture that, five years ago, simply did not exist.

My own institution, the University of the West of England (UWE) is also making a substantial contribution to developing its local economy through links with the business community.

Describing itself as “The Partnership University”, it is the hub of some truly dynamic and engaging collaboration with the business community and, during the last two years, has become increasingly known for the way it connects with small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across the region.

In particular, the Bristol Business School has been at the forefront of these developments by nurturing a resource that encourages entrepreneurship and enterprising behaviour amongst its student population and developing programmes that respond directly to the needs of SMEs in the South West of England and beyond.

It has invested in over twenty academic staff with enterprise, innovation and small business expertise and has a wide range of know-how and experience that draws on the latest thinking from both its comprehensive research base and specific programmes to support local firms.

In terms of teaching, entrepreneurship modules are available across its various degree courses and the Business School has established the first Team Entrepreneurship undergraduate degree in the UK, an innovation that is already reinforcing UWE’s reputation for developing entrepreneurial and employable graduates.

Its Executive Development Centre offers a range of bespoke development programmes to firms in key areas such as marketing, purchasing and supply and leadership, and there are opportunities for students to undertake their projects within local SMEs, most notably through the MBA Consulting module.

But there are other ways in which UWE is engaging with the local business community on a wider institutional scale.

Not only does it directly support business through a procurement policy where three quarters of its suppliers are SMEs, it manages one of the largest funded internship programmes in the UK and has subsidised nearly 650 regional SMEs to receive its students.

Given its focus on applied research, UWE is also active in supporting innovation across the local economy. For example, it has recently launched, via the Regional Growth Fund, a £4 million fund to support innovative firms in the region and has played a lead role in the iNets programme. This has helped to support more than 700 SMEs in the South West of England through the creation of regional innovation networks in key sectors such as Aerospace, Advanced Engineering, Environmental Technologies and Microelectronics.

Therefore, UWE is making its mark in supporting the local economy although there is clearly a greater role to be played by higher education, in partnership with government and industry, in ensuring a more entrepreneurial approach that is focused on making a real and sustainable contribution to the local business community.

How to achieve this is what I will be discussing in more detail during my inaugural professorial lecture at UWE on July 2nd. Details on how to attend can be found here

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