BlogFrom university precincts to community hubs?

Our latest blog is from Jon Kerr, Oppida’s Head of Growth and Partnerships, and looks at the idea of greater collaboration between universities and their local communities.

In early 2017, an Australian Federal government paper explored the opportunity to establish University Precincts: centres to foster and facilitate industry collaboration with the university sector. In 2018, I heard a well-known and respected vice-chancellor of a Victorian university espouse a similar model, one that extended to the local community and to individuals. 

A number of university precincts have been established in the time since and reportedly are producing some excellent results. However I wonder if the time is right to spark that conversation again, and to extend the concept? In light of the COVID-19 impacts on our national economy, let alone the university sector, is the timing right for these institutions to rapidly and courageously innovate and open the doors?

Changing environment

In the last year, our team at Oppida has helped a growing number of organisations tackle the challenge of delivering high quality capability development in a locked-down world. We are a small group of people and those challenges have not disappeared; in fact, many are increasing and most are morphing. Yet, our core Oppida value that we are humans designing for humans is more applicable than ever despite the ongoing and changing nature of other challenges.

The nature of work has changed significantly and there’s now greater flexibility. Working from home and an acceptance of results over time-at-desk as a valuable assessment of employees are just two examples. You could surmise too that the nature of “employment” will continue to expand into the gig economy and potentially require a different mix of resources such as utilities, short-term work spaces and so on.

Add to that acceptance of new ways to conduct business and a need for rapid but quality expansion of activity that reinvigorates economies, and the environment calls for a wonderfully resourced, trustworthy and expert partner to business. 

That partner needs to be able to respond rapidly, handle scale from small to major, be welcoming, be flexible and above all else have integrity. A quick look at existing university/industry precincts shows a great deal of effort has been devoted to create value—but the overwhelming message is aimed at major corporations and large-scale potential. 

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University micro-precincts?

The current university precincts tend to be massive in scale, and involve land purchases, infrastructure development and major entrepreneurial ventures. They’re innovation precincts and technology parks on a grand scale. Is this where the university sector takes a new tack? Creates a “micro-precinct”? Shifts from being “too big”, “too bogged down” or “too scary” to being willing and able to help small-scale rapidly evolving enterprises and smaller community organisations? Does the sector make use of existing resources, community expertise and local strengths?

Allow me to gaze into the crystal ball a little bit—a small business has created a brilliant design for a tool that will have major impacts on health in remote communities. They connect with their local university’s advanced manufacturing lab and build prototypes in return for a small fee and success equity—and business experience for engineering PhD students.

Or a regional agricultural non-profit co-op has developed a new seeding tool that reduces sowing time by 50% but needs help designing a digital training program to support its adoption—they utilise the local university’s design teams to build the training asset, host it on their LMS and collect a fee for every enrolment.

And on the other end of the scale, a local chapter of Toastmasters requires a new venue with disability access, so comes to an arrangement with their local university in return for international students attending as part of their English language development. 

Community hubs

I could go on, but the idea is for the institution to be a community hub as well as an education and research one—rent out space, offer AI labs services to local businesses and engage the local community as well as its broader one through service offers and so on. And perhaps if micro-credentials are available that recognise the experience gained through such collaboration, there is an opportunity to recruit new learners as well whilst expanding revenue streams. 

This is not my idea, and forms of this type do already exist. However, is it time for Australian universities to really dig in, build a coherent and workable strategy around this and use their vast resources to develop, market and test some models? 

Oppida team member - Jon Kerr

Writer’s Bio

Jon has over 18 years’ experience in the education field canvassing K-12, vocational, corporate and higher education fields including edtech and the creation of new and disruptive models. Originally trained as a secondary school teacher, he has developed a deep understanding of the global trends and issues faced by industry and society and how capability development and recognition plays a critical role in addressing them.

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