Paul Noon, pro vice-chancellor of enterprise and innovation at Coventry University discusses how WMCU represents a new kind of educational collaboration.
The word “collaboration” is a word that is bandied around a lot in higher education circles. Likewise the word “innovation” – I should know; it’s in my job title. While often repeated these words do in fact say a lot about how universities operate.
We collaborate with a multitude of partners from government – both central and local – to industry big hitters, small- and medium-sized businesses to charities, community groups and others across the third sector. And innovation – exploring and experimenting, and uncovering new and better ways of doing things – is pretty much what research specifically, and education as a whole, is all about.
Universities can and do collaborate with each other as well. Such partnerships however are usually between individuals or small groups of researchers working within a particular field and sharing common interests and expertise. Now though new collaborations have emerged here within the Midlands which have brought universities together at a wider, strategic, institutional level and sharing a collective goal to help meet the demands and opportunities of devolution across the region.
Earlier this year Coventry University joined forces with Birmingham City University and the University of Wolverhampton to launch the West Midlands Combined Universities (WMCU). This collaboration between three like-minded institutions is intended to provide the recently formed West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) with a powerful resource with which it can meet its objectives around skills, employment and productivity.
Health, the rapidly changing digital environment, and advanced manufacturing and its associated supply chains are just a few of the sectors which will benefit from WMCU’s collective drive to educate more local young people, upskill more local workforces and engage more deeply with local employers to support innovation to boost productivity and create new products and services..
Now, you might ask shouldn’t we be doing that already? Aren’t universities supposed to be applying their knowledge, research expertise and business acumen to develop skills and broaden understanding? And the answer is yes we should and we do already.
But this new partnership is about long-term joint working across a range of disciplines not short-term or one-off projects around niche interest areas. It also spans the combined authority area and projects will be designed around need not proximity so, for example, colleagues here at Coventry could help deliver a construction project in the Black Country and so on. It is truly collaborative in terms of knowledge transfer and skills sharing.
It is also a model that is being expanded across the Midlands region. As I write, the Midlands Enterprise Universities (MEU) is about to launch. Comprising the aforementioned institutions, MEU also includes the University of Derby, De Montfort University of Leicester, the University of Lincoln and Nottingham Trent University. Its aims are similar to WMCU but will be applied across the entire region in support of the Midlands Engine.
I welcome these developments but the challenge now is to convert aims into actions and I know that discussions are underway to kick start the projects that will help us to plug skills gaps, create jobs and support wealth creation across both the East and West Midlands. I know from my previous incarnation as regional director of UKTI that this region is full of innovative companies. With the weight of academia supporting their growth in this way we can achieve a step change in sustainable growth for the region.
This feature originally appeared in the Midlands Business Insider newsletter.