Universities serve our nation with distinction

Graduates from Edinburgh Napier University. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Graduates from Edinburgh Napier University. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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UNIVERSITIES are key to economic growth and a vital link in the development of firms internationally, says Alastair Sim

A NEW framework captures the full extent of higher education’s contribution to sustainable economic growth. This describes four dimensions of how universities drive Scotland’s prosperity.

Our contribution grows the economy. We are a leading Scottish export industry. We attract investment from around the world. We support Scottish businesses to thrive.

Let’s look at each of these.

Growth: Universities are a major Scottish industry in our own right. We are Scotland’s third-largest industry sector in terms of contribution to the overall economy, with an impact of £6.7bn supporting direct and indirect employment of 142,000 people. That’s an impact of £2,824 for every household in Scotland. Only the energy and financial sectors are larger. Every £1 of core public funding invested in Scottish universities generates more than £6 of economic benefit.

We are also creating the companies which help the Scottish economy to grow. For instance, we’re the most successful part of the UK for the creation of spin-out companies which translate university expertise into new businesses and new employment. To take one example, Axis-Shield, a spin-out from the University of Dundee has an annual turnover of £100m and has created 120 jobs in the city. The company specialises in healthcare diagnostics and produces laboratory and surgery equipment for use in the treatment of cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, infectious diseases and diabetes.

Export: Universities are one of Scotland’s key export sectors, drawing £1.3bn into the Scottish economy from export earnings. The quality of our teaching and research supports us, for instance, to compete successfully to bring over £580m of international student spending to the economy and over £400m of research funding and business contracts from outside Scotland. We are a fundamental part of Scotland’s international outreach, with alumni across the world who are passionate ambassadors for Scotland and with international provision in Dubai, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong to name a few of our global educational connections.

Attract: Our international network enables our success as one of Scotland’s key ‘pull’ factors in attracting foreign direct investment to Scotland, creating jobs and economic growth. We are better than any part of the UK outside London at attracting overseas investment. The majority of foreign investors cite university-related factors as essential motives for their choice to establish businesses in Scotland. These include the availability of a high-skill workforce, our world-class research base, and the presence of a “cluster” or critical mass of related businesses and expertise, for instance, building on our strength in the life sciences. These benefits are felt throughout Scotland – for instance Inverness’s growing contribution to our research-driven life sciences cluster has just been recognised by US-based company Daktari’s decision to create 130 jobs creating hand-held HIV monitoring devices.

Support: Universities are supporting Scotland’s indigenous businesses to grow and succeed. All of the key sectors of the economy have skills investment plans in which the university contribution is crucial. For instance, the financial services strategy says that “a vibrant higher education sector providing world-class research is fundamental to any priority industry, and it is essential that results of this research can be applied to benefit the industry, its customers and the economy”.

We are working to ensure that as many of Scotland’s businesses as possible can benefit from university expertise. We place a particular emphasis on engagement with the small and medium sized businesses which are the backbone of the Scottish economy and the fountain of entrepreneurship. Scottish businesses uniquely benefit from the “Interface” service which enables enterprises to access expertise from any university which will help them succeed. This helped over 300 businesses last year in areas as diverse as the engineering of a rugby training machine and the mathematics of secure data storage. We are also working to ensure that fundamental science translates quickly into real benefit for Scotland, and the new Innovation Centres bring universities, public services and industry together to address challenges such as tailoring drugs treatments targeted genetic characteristics.

So, what does this all mean for you? It means you’re part of a nation whose prosperity is closely related to the success of the Scotland’s universities. It means that whether you are a business leader or an individual professional we want to find out how we can best help you to succeed. It means that we look forward with confidence to politicians continuing to make the choices which support that success. Scotland deserves it.

• Alastair Sim is director of Universities Scotland

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