Universities are multifaceted, complex organisations. Their traditional activities have been education and research. More recently, these activities have evolved and others have come into play. This has led to the role of universities expanding. These changes have placed additional expectations on staff.
Universities are facing diverse challenges from government, the public and society. These include economic pressure to do more with less, uncertainty about staff and student recruitment and retention, and questions about their value and role. Universities need to be agile and willing to evolve to survive and thrive. They need to differentiate themselves and become more innovative.
The traditional ‘ivory tower’ concept of universities has dramatically weakened with many universities now playing the role of an anchor institution in their region.
In the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014, the impact of research ‘beyond academia’ – in other words, on the economy and society – was introduced. The weighting for research impact case studies in REF 2021 has increased from 16% of the REF in 2014 to 25% in 2021. Therefore, the impact of research is being given increasingly serious consideration for the REF by universities. Collaborations with organisations and communities outside academia are essential for success here.
But collaborations between universities and other organisations should not be driven by the REF, nor are they all about the REF. Academic research can be the start of strategic collaborations involving universities with other organisations focused on, for example, attracting businesses to the region, Master’s programmes to provide advanced skills in shortage areas, and providing public events such as lectures and festivals that enrich life and wellbeing.