Skip to main content

What are universities for?

8 August 2013

Professor Colin Riordan
Vice-Chancellor, Professor Colin Riordan BA, PhD

What are universities for? Everybody knows that universities exist to educate students and help to create a highly educated workforce. Most people know they're also the place where research is done that ends up in technologies like smartphones, fuel-efficient cars and advanced medical care. That means universities are a critical part of the innovation process.

Innovation is key to prosperity and improved well being, because it's the invention and adoption of new products, processes, techniques and policies which, in mature economies, drive growth and future prosperity. The journey from idea to product is not straightforward though. The right conditions are needed.

Silicon Valley was a success because universities - especially Stanford University - and the computer industry were co-located in California and, supported by government contracts, were a well-spring of innovation that drove the information revolution.

At Cardiff University we want to create an innovation system that will drive economic growth in Wales. I don't mean that we want to try to imitate what happened in Northern California from the 1940s on. But we can create a next-generation innovation system that will help put Wales in the forefront of new developments in technology, services, health, social policy, heritage, the arts and other areas.

To do this we need to create a culture of innovation. Our scientists working in key, close-to-market areas like catalysis, medical instruments, energy, aircraft materials and the like, need facilities where they can work closely with their counterparts in the relevant industries to take lab ideas to the stage where they can become commercial products.

We need innovation hubs where start-up companies can get affordable space, advice and support so that their companies can grow and become independent. These companies might be university spin-outs, graduate entrepreneurs or local people with bright business ideas. We want students to be closely involved.

We'll create a centre for enterprise education fed from Cardiff Business School. We want undergraduates to become used to innovation as a normal part of university life. We want to create a magnet that will attract businesses and allow them to grow and flourish. We want to add a social science element, so that we always know what's happening in innovation policy round the world and understand how the public is going to view new products, services and technologies. We can help devise new policies that will work for Wales. This is not just about technology.

Creative industries are a major growth area here and we'll want a Creative Industries Hub to help drive innovation in that area too. We'll need to work in partnership with the Welsh government, local authorities and other universities so that the whole of Wales is working together.

Make no mistake, Cardiff University is innovating now. We always have. But we must be strategic and systematic, investing in our Maindy Road and Heath Park sites to ensure that we do everything possible to promote innovation, prosperity and improved wellbeing for the people of Wales into the future.

Professor Colin Riordan, Vice-Chancellor, Cardiff University

This article also appeared in the Western Mail's 'University View' column August 8, 2013

Share this story