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Why education is the lifeblood of investment

As students around the world embark upon their courses, a thriving higher education system has never been more important to both companies and the world of investment, writes Judith O'Doherty of eutopia.

The vibrancy and economic boost students give to a city, along with how attractive they make it to would-be investors, should not be underestimated. (Photo by Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Around this time of year, millions of students globally will be returning to university campuses for what will hopefully be a more normalised student experience. I have just returned from Manchester where I left one rather nervous but excited daughter as she embarks on her higher education journey.

Even though I am slightly daunted at the prospect of my daughter having some of the same (and god forbid better!) student experiences that I did, the vibe of possibility and opportunity for these young people is more contagious than Covid.

Unexpectedly, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, universities are largely oversubscribed in the UK in 2021. While that is driven by a domestic cohort, there still appears to be strong international representation. My Irish daughter is very much the ‘local lass’ in her student halls, with her neighbours hailing from Sri Lanka, India, Nigeria and Hong Kong, testament to the enduring attractiveness of top-performing institutions – even during these strange times.

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Educational diversity is good for investment promotion

This enduring international influx is good news for the UK’s universities clearly, but it is also reassuring to physically see the abundance of diverse talent and skills that we talk about in such a functional and sometimes abstract way as part of investment promotion. These bright young things and the higher education system itself have always been an important part of the investment ecosystem, but their role and influence has been steadily growing.

The universities are not only a key investment actor in attracting and producing skills for the future. Links with companies are now mission critical for universities. At their most basic level, these links support employability for graduates, an important key performance indicator. However, the relationships run much deeper, driven for universities by the need for additional revenue streams and to build credibility as research institutions – the key differentiator and signifier of quality. Look at any university website and you will see four promotion categories – undergraduate, postgraduate, research and business.

Business is also important from an executive education perspective – and the universities are capitalising on this space, providing experienced professionals an opportunity to upgrade and keep their skills relevant through internationally recognised qualifications and accreditations. We are all life learners now, whether we want to be or not!

For companies, it is driven by access to research skills, intellectual property and innovation as well as identifying a ready source of skills to support expansion. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine highlights the power of utilising the top talent and research resources in the country to bring solutions to global problems. For many pharma and tech companies, relationships with universities are becoming the most important strand of their R&D investment, and they provide a more agile, cost-effective and results-orientated approach due to the competitiveness of universities in the R&D space. This is perfect symbiosis.

The company-focused university

Increasingly, universities are adapting their curricula in response to the needs of companies that require work-ready graduates. It is a hard skills and soft skills play – be it offering courses on the latest programming language or even straightforward languages to ensure operational excellence, or internships that allow students the opportunity to smoothly transition into a worker bee.

Of course, for companies there is also the need to retain or even retrain existing talent, and universities have a growing role here. Individual economic potential is predicated on how we choose to adapt and pivot our skills as industries change. Companies need to offer us more then good salaries; we need the flexibility and support to stay relevant in changing marketplaces to maintain that economic potential.

Students are also important for cities and regions, not just as part of the skills narrative, but because they have a huge role to play in the animation of the city. Their physical presence is unavoidable in Manchester and in other ‘student cities’ across Europe, such as Lyon, Utrecht and Pisa. Students lend their vitality to a location, they create vibrancy. Their promise and intellectual capital is traded in the investment community like a commodity, while their contribution to the local economy is often underestimated. Their importance when it comes to sustained economic growth and expansion is paramount.

So, here’s to all the freshers, many of whom don’t yet understand their value and contribution to place, investment, company success and our economic future.

Judith O’Doherty is founder of place consultancy eutopia.