The past year witnessed a highly charged debate about our public university system. The Wisconsin Technology Council believes it is time for a post-partisan discussion about the future of our state’s higher education system and its role in providing Wisconsin with a competitive economic edge.

Nations and states with a competitive advantage in knowledge and innovation – and the foresight to invest in nurturing both – are the best-positioned for long-term economic growth. Innovation and knowledge are the twin drivers of 21st century economic success. Innovation is our economy’s only sustainable source of productivity gains. Knowledge is the source of the expertise and “know-how” that spurs innovation.

The University of Wisconsin System, the Wisconsin Technical College System and Wisconsin’s private, non-profit colleges and universities develop the talented people who are essential sources of innovation and knowledge.

The UW System, due to its size, scale and the global prominence of its research institutions, has a paramount effect. It trains many of our scientists and business leaders. University campuses are leaders in scientific discovery and innovation. Wisconsin is blessed to have an exceptional university system by any national or international measure. That quality extends to Wisconsin’s private universities and technical colleges, which are part of a cohesive higher education community that collectively benefits our citizens.

Here are guiding principles to be considered in setting policies regarding this vital economic engine:

Recognize fundamental differences between the UW’s doctoral-granting campuses and the system’s four-year institutions. Doctoral campuses are research engines and producers of advanced degrees, with different faculty requirements, student bodies and even facilities. Comprehensive campuses are known first for undergraduate educational quality and access. We must maintain UW-Madison’s status as an elite research university, elevate UW-Milwaukee’s capacity in our largest city and maintain excellence and access for our four-year comprehensive campuses. Attempts to standardize missions would be stultifying and unresponsive to a changing Innovation Economy marketplace. Administrative functions can be consolidated to save money and improve service without touching the core enterprise.

Attract and retain the best faculty and researchers at all of our institutions. The best teachers produce better-prepared graduates, who form the workforce of tomorrow. The best researchers excel at attracting the external grant funding that creates jobs, leads to patentable discoveries, and often is the catalyst for the formation of high-growth companies. Our universities are only as strong as the faculty who teach, research and transfer ideas to the market. To better compete, Wisconsin must attract and retain faculty members who feel they have the freedom to teach, research and grow within one of the nation’s premier systems.

Keep our universities affordable and accessible for all residents who want to get a college education in Wisconsin. We must attract the best and brightest students from Wisconsin and around the globe, and excel at retaining the best and brightest. Wisconsin ranks 30th among 50 states in the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher. It ranks 27th in per capita student aid. State policies should aspire to improve those rankings, just as higher education should encourage a culture of achieving cost efficiencies. Other states and regions have benefited by attracting talent from beyond their immediate borders. Increasing brain gain is no less important than stemming brain drain.

Improve the transfer of knowledge and ideas into a prosperous Wisconsin economy. We need to capture innovation, nurture its development, encourage commercialization and foster the pathway to success. This requires removing internal roadblocks and identifying and filling the gaps in the development continuum. For students in every field, we must excel at the translation of knowledge gained in the classroom to skills that advance productive careers.

Be aware of the competitive world around us. Policies and strategies must evolve with an eye to the competitive dynamics of other states and nations. If we have advantages, others will try to emulate and surpass us. Wisconsin cannot be complacent about its strengths and it cannot close the competitive gap without understanding what those ahead of us are doing.

As strategies and policies are developed in the coming biennium, the Wisconsin Technology Council encourages both sides of the political aisle to engage in a constructive debate based upon a common set of principles designed to enhance Wisconsin’s competitiveness and long-term economic success.

Wisconsin Technology Council board of directors (Adopted by its executive committee 8-23-15)