As higher education providers with the purpose of fostering talent and preparing young people for their professional lives, universities bear an immense societal responsibility. To duly accept this responsibility and deliver high-quality education, institutions need to take into account the needs of the labour market. The highly rigid and traditional nature of many universities is incongruous with the fast-paced, evolving nature of the economy and makes it hard for them to keep up with technological change. Enhanced cooperation with the business community could render university systems more dynamic and needs-oriented, helping to better align curricula with the economy.
The concrete objectives of such cooperation focus on around teaching students the skills that are relevant (i.e. have tangible value) to their subsequent professional career. In addition to practical sector-specific qualifications, this includes digital, interpersonal and entrepreneurship skills. Digital literacy is indispensable in today’s technology-driven society, while promoting soft skills and entrepreneurial thinking have great potential societal and economic benefits by upgrading the work force and boosting innovation. Such transversal skills are a by-product not only of the content of university teaching, but also the way in which the teachers teach and the students learn, and as such, must continue to evolve and modernise.
Bridging the gap between education and the economy would also give students a better feel for the job market and available opportunities. This could result in lower university drop-out rates, better career decision-making and, ultimately, less unemployment.
A few concrete examples of how university-business cooperation could look in 2040 (or earlier) and what systematic changes have to be made will provide some insight on how higher education providers can fulfil their pivotal role when it comes to innovation and talent development for the business and industrial sector.
The most impactful measure is actually not the hardest to implement. By 2040, universities would organise both optional and mandatory workshops on a range of different topics, designed for, and taught by, industry professionals. These would be incorporated into curricula and complement the main courses, teaching students more practical, day-to-day, job-related skills.
To calibrate the system and keep it up-to-date, the governance of universities in 2040 would differ quite significantly from current structures. By incorporating the various stakeholders into the decision-making process, universities would be more successful in fulfilling their role and increasing their efficiency. The administration would make decisions on curricula, staff, development, etc. together with public authorities, local representatives, entrepreneurs and corporations. With this type of governance, universities can modernise and turn into inspiring, innovation-driven institutions over the course of the next two decades.
A high innovative and entrepreneurial capacity would turn universities into creative hubs that encourage personal initiative and foster the development of spin-outs through strategic/commercialisation support and better access to finance. Given adequate funding and market opportunities, university research and ideas would thus directly feed into the economy, driving innovation through a currently underexploited channel.
A strong link between universities and businesses significantly increases the employability of graduates, which decreases youth unemployment and makes it easier for companies to find suitable staff. In view of its relevance, some measure of employability, including self-employment, would be more to the fore in all university ranking statistics. Aside from this alignment of incentives, such a ranking enables more informed and confident decision-making among prospective students. Of course, the sole purpose of universities is not to secure employment for its graduates, but this should be prominent among universities’ objectives and reflected in their performance indicators.
By 2040, a closer link between education and the economy would also manifest itself in an increased number of careers fairs, field trips and work-based learning, both at school and university level. By directly interacting with many different kinds of firms of various sizes, students can better gauge what type of work they would be interested in, explore opportunities and acquire additional skills and experience for the world of work. These measures would be complemented by other adjustments, such as an expansion of university career services, improved access to tertiary education, as well as more specific course descriptions in relation to how taught skills prepare students for professional life. The skills mismatch that stubbornly refused to drop in the earlier part of the 21th century – in EU countries with high and low unemployment levels alike – will have abated thanks to enhanced permeability between academic and vocational tertiary education. This has the dual advantage of achieving greater parity of esteem between what were previous perceived to be quite distinct educational paths and at the same time equipping students for their careers.
In conclusion, there is a lot to gain from closer university-business cooperation. A more comprehensive, more relevant tertiary education would reduce the skills gap and mismatch, resulting in more employment, increased economic growth, and higher living standards.
The proposed measures are anything but impossible to implement and Chambers of Commerce & Industry stand ready to facilitate this overdue “rapprochement” in the interest of everyone.
Arnaldo Abruzzini has been the CEO of The Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry (EUROCHAMBRES) since 1999. In Brussels, he represents the voice of over 20 million companies through members in 43 countries and a network of 1.700 regional and local Chambers. Arnaldo is also an active entrepreneur, having founded several companies. He still owns shares in telecommunications (Interactive Media), energy (InRes) and business consulting (Consir) firms. Mr. Abruzzini has worked as Managing Director of several companies active in telecommunications (EPTA), marketing and communications (MediaCamere) and business advice (CoFiCom) in Italy and USA. He has also served in the financial sector, notably in investment banking (MedioBanca) and insurance companies (Bavaria).