Complementarity in Higher Education: what does it mean for disciplines?

One of the most important concepts in the Wilson Review of University-Business Collaboration is complementarity – the idea that different institutions with different histories, different cultures, missions and identities, can play roles that support, reinforce and enhance each other in the pursuit of economic as well as social and cultural benefit.

A sector shaped by a sense of collaborative – rather than competitive – advantage would emphasise complementarity, leading universities to recognise and celebrate the strengths of others, and cross-refer businesses to the most appropriate HE partner. The potential prize is a bigger ‘pie’ to share, rather than an increasingly vicious scrap to divide up the existing pastry-encased dish.

This will be the theme for my talk tomorrow at the HE Beyond 2015 conference. In my 20 minutes I will be sticking to the corporate level, but with my new academic role I’m becoming more interested in the disciplinary dimension of policy debates. So when I spoke to the Association of Business Schools policy roundtable last month I suggested there was potential in thinking about issues such as local economic development through the lens of academic subjects. How can disciplines as distinctive forms of knowledge work together in tackling important problems, such as building (economically, socially) sustainable communities, or supporting enterprise and business growth?

Jon Wilson highlighted today at the first of the ippr/King’s Policy Unit seminars on the Future of HE that there’s often a disconnect between how management conceive of and express the purpose of higher education and how academics do so. In theory at least, there is real potential for complementarity between the ‘corporate’ and the ‘academic’ (as a disciplinary practitioner) in areas such as local economic development.

University leaders can set strategy, defining a framework that values engagement with and commitment to local impact in whatever forms fit the institution’s mission and the community’s needs. Subject area leaders such as Heads of School can then use that framework to help structure their thinking in terms of disciplinary activity – not as a constraint on creativity but the opposite, as a license for imagining and reconceiving what forms that academic endeavour could take if inspired by the idea of local impact.

I wonder how often those ‘conversations’ between the corporate and the academic dimensions of university life take place? Or do we instinctively resort to models of irreconcilability between the two? The Wilson Review highlighted the need to challenge outmoded ideas of the unbridgeable cultural divide between universities and business and debunk the myths of the ‘unresponsive university’ and the ‘unreasonable business’. Do we also need to turn our attention inwards and look for greater complementarity between corporate and academic aspirations and endeavours? This is challenging for both parties, but the potential rewards are great.

Most universities seek national and international profile and standing, at least in select areas. These goals can be compatible – not in tension – with significant and multi-faceted engagement at local level; we can be world-class at local impact, and that mission can bring global connections, for example with collaborations in teaching and research.  What is needed is commitment and imagination, both at corporate and at discipline level, to find the points of integration between local and national agendas.

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Afterthought: Does it make those ‘conversations’ easier if the corporate leaders share a disciplinary background with a group of academics?

Parallel tracks? (Higher) education for employability and intellectual development

Updated: I enjoyed speaking today about the Wilson Review alongside Trudy Norris-Grey at the Westminster Briefing event on graduate employability.  One interesting question from the floor followed up on Trudy’s comments about the mismatch between the skills developed by students at university and those needed by employers.  What did she think higher education was for?  By way of explanation, the questioner suggested that universities were trying to do many different things at the same time, and that maybe the development of employability skills and intellectual capacity were two such parallel tracks.  (I don’t quote her exactly but hope I have captured the essence of her contribution.)

I thought this was an interesting perspective and one that is often raised in discussions about the role and purpose of higher education as preparation for the world of work.  But can we see employability and intellectual capacities as overlapping domains rather than parallel tracks?  I’m interested both from a research and from a teaching and learning perspective in the skills and cognitive capabilities history students learn through their academic training.  Is it the case that those skills and capabilities are separate from, and therefore need to be supplemented by, employability training?  Or is it that it’s difficult to recognise and articulate the ways in which they have value and applicability in both academic and work-related contexts?

It may be that a mix of both is required, but I wonder if we do enough to help students really engage with the processes of academic training and the implications for their future careers.  Can we ourselves explain well what that training is equipping them to do, whether it’s history, philosophy, life sciences or economics?  I put down these initial reflections in one of the ‘thinkpieces‘ we wrote as a way of getting going on the Wilson Review.  I hope that the spirit of trying to see past potential dividing lines (such as between employability and academic training) came through in the final report.