Those of us who run universities live and work in interesting times. The global financial crisis sparked a deep recession, exposing unsustainable public sector debt and other weaknesses in our economy. Like it or not, spending cuts have to be made and government is clear that it cannot afford to fully protect higher education budgets.
The noise surrounding recent protest riots in London and elsewhere drowned out many key issues and masked the operational challenges we, as university managers, tackle every day. The heart of the university funding debate should not be 'fees versus free' but how much graduates contribute to paying for their degrees and whether they do so via higher graduate contributions or a graduate tax.
If we wish to create a university funding regime which sustains international competitiveness and quality, while promoting social mobility, then protest is not enough. We need a viable solution. The government's acceptance of Lord Browne's proposals for higher graduate contributions will help us plan, manage resources and respond to tough budget cuts.
English universities now depend more upon persuading others to invest in their future and preserve the UK's strengths at a time of very significant investment in global higher education, especially in countries such as China and India.
I am fortunate, as an economist, to appreciate factors that underlie the present situation and other threats that persist. I also identify - and actively promote - opportunities for entrepreneurship, knowledge transfer and global collaborations which keep this university on a firm footing.
The key to maintaining world-class status is achieving scale paired with sustainable income streams. The University of Nottingham has an annual turnover of more than half a billion pounds in Britain alone, offers comprehensive coverage across subject areas to its 32,000 UK students, fosters excellent working relationships with major international players such as Alliance Boots, GSK, Rolls-Royce and SAB Miller and engages actively with a wide network of SMEs locally, regionally and nationally, sharing intelligence in many ways.
Nottingham also has a unique global footprint, with 9,000 students at our campuses in China and Malaysia. We need to look at how we use that scale to continue world-class teaching and learning, research and development and diversifying income streams through partnerships with business.
We must build long-term holistic relationships with a wide and complementary network of partners. There are many ways in which universities and business can work together. Opportunities for graduate recruitment, work placements, executive education, R&D and expert consultancy can benefit both.
These connections between business and universities have been, in the past, fragmented, with one part of an institution engaging with one part of a business, partnering on one issue. It is more effective to create strategic partnerships embracing all relationships.
In our partnerships with Alliance Boots and GlaxoSmithKline, for instance, I enjoy excellent personal relationships with Stefano Pessina and Andrew Witty respectively that set the context within which our two organisations collaborate. Nottingham is also a world top 20 choice for employers in the QS World Ranking 2009/10 - and, on The Apprentice, Alan Sugar selected as a finalist recent Nottingham graduate Chris Bates.
This university joins forces with others to create enterprises that build on broad and deep expertise in fields tackling major human challenges such as energy sustainability and climate change, global food security, drug discovery and integrating global society. Our energy research is world-leading. For example, 2010 saw the launch of the National Centre for Carbon Capture and Storage, in partnership with the British Geological Survey. Many initiatives are partnerships with leading corporates, for example bioenergy with SAB Miller and developing carbon-neutral laboratories with GSK.
I really believe universities' international connections are significantly underleveraged. Breaking into new export markets or deciding whether or not to commit to new overseas investments has serious up-front costs. Universities, through their global networks and expertise, can offer invaluable intelligence on overseas markets and unfamiliar regulatory environments.
I can point to examples of Nottingham, with its campuses in China and Malaysia, helping British firms to decide to locate in China and Chinese firms to invest in our region.
UK universities are a treasure trove for businesses and the economy. They contribute far more benefit than the £3bn value in services to business and industry identified last summer in the annual Higher Education - Business and Community Interaction survey. Businesses should consider their local university a valuable resource in which to invest for joint future growth.
Professor David Greenaway is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nottingham and an economist. He recently joined the government's Asia Task Force. He has been consultant to the World Bank, the OECD, the European Commission, the UN and HM Treasury. From 2004 to 2010, he chaired the Armed Forces' Pay Review Body and was also a member of the Senior Salaries Review Body. Other appointments have included non-executive positions on NHS boards and as an adviser to various government departments.