GREAT UNIVERSITIES PROVIDE CONFIDENCE FOR THEIR REGION and global mobility for their graduates.
Hunter Research Foundation studies show the impact of the University of Newcastle on the region is worth $5.5 billion directly and indirectly.
Of that $5.5 billion, the impact of the CBD campus is valued at $1.3 billion alone, for the period from 2013 to 2022.
“That’s impressive, and very important,” says Vice- Chancellor Caroline McMillen.
“Apart from economic stimulus to the city of bringing in a whole lot of students, there is also the value per graduate of the degree. After their earnings are analysed it is a phenomenal return on investment.”
The University of Newcastle has always held itself to account in regards to its commitment to the region.
It is inextricably entwined with the region’s industrial journey and now leading the charge on the post-industrial highway.
“Universities across the world have had the same journey in very different circumstances,” says Professor McMillen. “More particularly the role of universities in post-industrial cities.”
She cites Pittsburgh in the US and Newcastle in the UK as other examples where communities built the universities at a time when the signals were strong for industrial leaders, business leaders and entrepreneurs.
“Cities built the universities,” says Professor McMillen, but in time of need or in time of transition, in what way can universities support communities, and support the industry leaders to make transitions?
“It might be adding new processes, new systems to industry, creating industry through innovation. It is also about providing the leadership in the area, people who can work through the strategy required, work through the retention or recruitment of business and industry to the environment.
“That is particularly important in a mining community where the price of a commodity plays such a significant role in employment. You need resilience and balance in the community and that is what the university provides.
“We share the same story as Pittsburgh, but we share it in different contexts. We are both defi nitely blue-collar and definitely aspirational.”
One of Pittsburgh’s remedies for its industrial hangover was to entice some of the bigger US creative industries and create hubs.
“That is in our plan,” says Professor McMillen. “Our strategic plan New Directions is absolutely focused on that.
“How do we take the new values we generate, the knowledge we generate and how do we do two things: One, ensure our graduates are going to be fit for employment, future-proofed as it were, for new jobs. And the other: make sure we are connecting.
“We test it on the world stage, and then we know it is going to drive innovation of a really high standard with great value. For example, we are leading the world in the separation of minerals and flotation systems. The value added to the local base to improve its yield is real. It adds to the revenue base of the industry and cuts costs through energy efficiency.”
The university has a dual role. New jobs are present now in creative industries that were unknown five or 10 years ago. Pathways are changing through the connection of traditional performance-based disciplines with IT and a good business model.
“We have tremendous, bright people, who in an entrepreneurial sense, and talent sense, can work to drive that,” says Professor McMillen.
“Newcastle has always been edgy in music and art and performance and design.
“The environment is right to take the 1970s vibe and 1990s vibe and fast-forward into a future where you are combining digital music production, or visual animation,with a sound business application.
“So creativity is a growth industry. We have to equip our graduates to change with the industry.”
There are core elements to creative industries and the key is to identify where they are being implemented and then generate new sources of business and revenue.
When she came to Newcastle, Professor McMillen commissioned an independent, comprehensive study on the Hunter Region’s suitability as a hub for creative industries.
The study benchmarked Newcastle against other cities in the world that had set up creative hubs.
“The report gave us confi dence that this is appropriate,” she says. “Whether it is visual communications, or digital communications or the next phase for journalism.
“You’re working with the talent, but the medium is different. The talent defines everything, but it is being connected into a really different communication vehicle.
“We’ve done the studies and we understand the value.
Our leaders have gone to the US and UK. The creative arts and creative industries are very much part of our future, otherwise we will not be keeping pace.”
Professor Kevin Hall, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research & Innovation) cites Waterloo University in Canada as another example of a region where the university has “really changed the fabric of the city and the way businesses are set up”.
“Waterloo drives a $3 billion a year economy,” says Professor Hall. “The whole city has changed to accommodate the university. The president of the university 25 years ago said we want to be the driver of the regional economy but I need to attract good talent.
“If I’m going to get good talent, I need good school systems, good public transportation. All the things to make a good academic leave the comforts of Boston and MIT or London to come to a small region. They need to know they can personally flourish and then the region flourishes, and that’s what happened there.”
Professor Hall describes the success of the Jameson Cell as direct stimulation. But he believes the university needs to facilitate partnerships.
“We brought Airbus to campus,” he says. “Given the region’s defence cluster, it’s a good fit. We brought Airbus’s senior executives from Europe to Newcastle. In addition to having our researchers pitch what they do and build connections, we brought in some of the local industries that we work with.
“We introduce them to Airbus and that relationship is totally separate to the university’s.
“The university acted as a facilitator and I see us doing that more and more. It’s not just what is in it for us, or driving research for research’s sake, but also what’s best for the region.”
Professor Hall says there will be a number of start-ups in the Hunter in the next five to 10 years the region never envisioned.
“What we’ve seen in Waterloo is some of these companies become huge,” he says.
“Blackberry came out of the dreams of a couple of Waterloo uni students but they were in a region that encouraged innovation.
“The Hunter and the university can definitely be one of those regions and drive innovation – but it takes a whole ecosystem. This includes a good university, really innovative outputs, good partnerships with business and a sense of entrepreneurship in the city as well as the university.
“We have to go into the community and build this vision.
The university can be the grocery store of ideas, but we need people with an entrepreneurial culture.
“The tougher thing to develop is the culture of angel investors and venture capital funds. But that comes with a few successes. Waterloo for instance has a venture capital fund of more than $1.5 billion. That is absolutely conceivable in the Hunter. All it will take is some successful start-ups and the normally risk-averse investors will become interested.”
The next phase for Newcastle to drive regional innovation is a technology park. The co-location of industry and research is critical. Professor Hall believes the university is probably three or four years away from starting a technology park at Callaghan campus. The benefits are myriad and it fits in with the university’s status as a facilitator.
“The university is good at bringing cohesion to all the disparate groups in town doing the same thing and trying to drive innovation,” he says. We have facilitated group meetings.
“The success has been around the defence cluster.
“We have connected a number of companies who never thought they would work with each other, but are now solving problems, even competitors in some cases, because the model works with the university as the facilitator.
“As we look at a model for a business park and colocation, we need to look at co-location of government as well, if we want our research to have an impact on policy.
That can have a big impact on the innovation culture. The government department is located in the same building as the researchers and the businesses.
“I like to overbuild by 20 per cent to embed corporations and government into the labs. If you can embed them in your day-to-day activities it really encourages innovation, which then drives the regional economy.”
Professor McMillen says she is committed to having the most exciting of the next generation of thinkers living in and enjoying the region.
“We must keep attracting the best people to our region because they add value to everyone who meets them,” she says. “Including the students.
“We provide the opportunity for graduates to see the world,” she says, “when their exposure might normally have only been with the region or the state.
“Now they have a sense of being part of the community here, but have a base from which they can see the world and what they can contribute to it and what they can bring back to the region. It’s that adding of global mobility.”