By David Wright, HECG Managing Director

The University of Sheffield in Yorkshire, England, is a partner in a high-tech collaboration in which university scientists, engineers and students work side-by-side with industry “to solve live problems and create value” for firms such as Rolls Royce.

One element of this is the university’s Apprentice Training Centre where 600 local young people from poor working-class backgrounds are employed by companies and are gaining an education in one of the best industrial research contexts in the world.

It’s a fundamental part of the university’s mission to actively support and develop its community.

When asked why the university runs this scheme for disadvantaged teenagers, the vice-chancellor Sir Keith Burnett replied: “Because we can.”

Because we can … it’s a great phrase and it clearly announces that this university is not to be bound by traditional models of higher education.

The university sector is changing, but unfortunately many institutions still operate along lines akin to that of a factory: money and students come in at one end and out come students with degrees and research results at the other.

Of course, many other beneficial activities take place but this process is dominant.

Some work too is done with industry and the broader community to design courses that meet the career needs of students, but here again there is not much to differentiate one university from another.

University research can produce great results, but for the most part its impact in the community is uncertain even though it may feature in citations and publications.

The core business of many universities centres on research and teaching in a repeatable process-related model.

Experts and consultants do great work to optimise and continuously improve this model, but essentially it remains the same process.

It is questionable whether this factory model best serves the needs of regions with specifically local needs.

I argue that there is a better way.

It begins with examining how universities in regional areas can help to meet the needs of their communities.

It takes empathy, listening and understanding.

When empathy, listening and understanding is the path travelled what we see is not the need for a traditional institution, another big factory.

Teenagers and children in these communities often have diminished hopes and aspirations.

Early in school they form strong views that the best they can aspire to is what their parents have achieved. If they are not suited to that, or if those careers don’t exist any more, then even that security is removed.

Their journey through school often lacks ambition or purpose, and so their progress is hindered in a cycle that reinforces the lack of hope and aspirations.

Parents, teachers, and community leaders want so much more but have few solutions that can be relied on to produce good results.

Even universities with the best intentions often limit themselves.

Resource restrained, they feel that while external engagement is important it is not core business to the same extent as research and teaching.

But what if they redefined core business?

Here’s my suggestion:

To provide hope and belief in a better future for the community.

Investment in their community’s intellectual capital would directly help young people and their families, bringing new opportunities and the real possibility of a brighter future.

But for communities to have trust and faith in such a mission they need to see how it could be forged and to be engaged as partners in making it real.

They need a plan that raises aspirations but also is realistic about expectations – one backed up by clear and measurable actions.

One of the first of these measurable actions is to develop a Shared Future Story, a term coined by our colleagues at 2nd Road.

The new future story here is one in which the university factory model is replaced by one in which the university is so integrated into the community that it is impossible to work out where its walls even are.

Community businesses are supported by university business ecosystems; local industry experts are teachers at the university; students and academics are key drivers of hope and inspiration for young students (much like the NASA model); local businesses and governments have internship as part of their culture; and infrastructure is everywhere rather than isolated from the community.

Critically, the university’s core role is to deliver on the promise and opportunity of a new future story for each young person in the community before hope is darkened. In years 9-12 it is often too late for many talented young people. But in this new future story no previous limitation exists – each child can do anything they want to do if they care enough and are prepared to go for it; each child will have confidence that they will be able to make their own future.

The plan then needs to be real and overtly visible – a model for this has been proven to work in Europe and is commonly called the Triple Helix model.

Government, community, industry and the university formally agree on the priority of challenges and the role they will play individually and together in meeting those challenges.

This future story is shared and continual dialogue can help it to evolve and improve.

Where universities are part of delivering a “shared future story” the impact on their communities has been profound.

In the Netherlands, for example, former resource industry towns have been rejuvenated by universities that provide new learning opportunities and which work closely with local business and industry.

As with the University of Sheffield, they do it because they can.

And they can do it because they have the right plan.