Since the 1970s a new conceptual framework has emerged in theories of economic development. Previously, development had been conceptualised as an accumulation of factors related to capital and labour. As a result of changes in production patterns following increasing international competition, however, the accumulation of knowledge (human capital) and innovation turned out to be key elements for the advanced economies’ performance. As a consequence, the concept of knowledge economy became crucial in the social sciences and in national/international policy agendas, and the role played by universities - as providers of both human capital and scientific research - was enhanced. The universities were thus expected to increasingly integrate into the social-economic environment, trying to cope with their stakeholders’ demands and produce innovation in cooperation with, and to the benefit of, key external actors. Within the European higher education systems, the case of the UK is considered to be particularly sensitive to the needs of the world of production, especially after the policy reforms initiated by the Conservative governments in the 1980s. The research presented in this article focuses on the nonlinearity of this vision and, above all, on the rhetoric and contradictions inherent in theories and policies based on the knowledge economy approach. The study, which investigates the relationships between universities and their socio-economic environment in the UK, was carried out through the analysis of aggregate data and qualitative interviews with key informants, both at the national level and in four case studies in Manchester and Liverpool.
Keywords: Knowledge economy, higher education system, stakeholders, research partnerships, innovation market