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Making the most of local universities - their economic potential and placemaking roles

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

If you have ever grappled with why your local universities seem to spend more time chasing overseas students, focusing on national league tables, and opening campuses elsewhere, than with local placemaking and economic development priorities, this episode is for you. Dr Louise Kempton of CURDS (the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies, Newcastle) shares her international, national, and local expertise in our latest episode of LED Confidential, From books to boom: the potential of universities to transform local economies.

University cafeteria

The good news – there really is a lot that we can do to increase the possibilities of positive university contributions to our city and towns’ success; the caveats – there really is no ‘silver bullet’, and it is going to require a lot of detailed and enduring work from local and combined authorities (LAs/CAs), universities themselves, and all partners in local leadership teams; the bad news – as if you haven’t already guessed…don’t expect UK government policies and ways of working to help!

The presumption that universities are critical to local economic success, and that there is an easy fit between the university sector, public bodies and business to deliver this, underpins a lot of innovation-led growth and development in the UK. This has been seen most recently in Government’s Investment Zone (IZ) prospectus which effectively requires university-anchored knowledge clusters for local proposals to be approved which we discussed in April’s episode and this blog.


Yet is this presumption correct, both for places and for universities themselves?


If one looks at the top-10 local authority districts outside London for productivity per hour – including major towns like Slough, Aldershot, and some of the other Thames Valley boroughs – none of them are known for their universities. And, conversely, the global research-intensive Russell Group universities of England’s great northern cities have not been sufficient to redress their global or even national productivity gaps with London and other leading cities.


So, the necessary and sufficient arguments are much more nuanced than the simplistic presumptions.


Our discussions focused on four important functions for universities in realising local university LED and place-making dividends.


First, building absorptive capacity and increasing local demand for high value knowledge-based services – through attracting inward investment, growing local business, and potentially public services reform such as in the NHS – can scale up and scale out university capabilities to the wider city economy.


Second, research, development, and innovation (RD&I) should not just be about new shiny buildings at the frontiers of niche science academia – but should encompass foundation economy sectors and be designed to have a positive impact on the challenges facing local communities and businesses.


Third, balance the financial incentives of being an efficient student teaching factory, with commitments to lifelong learning, upskilling, and continuing professional development that matches local labour market priorities, and attracting retaining and developing talent locally.


Fourth, do all this in a whole systems approach – from seamless interfaces with ‘Colleges of the Future’ (https://collegecommission.co.uk/final-report-uk) and between academic and technical/vocational pathways, to local compacts and agreements that embed universities in local leadership teams and long-term genuine partnership working.


There are serious constraints to achieving win-win solutions. We considered a couple of local barriers.


First, it is genuinely challenging for LAs and CAs to understand the motivations of multiple types and characters of universities in their geographies, and to frame a deliverable ask of them for both the neighbourhoods where they are located, and for the wider geography including towns where they have no presence. Second, universities themselves are complex organisations whose leadership can change strategic intentions, and who have their own academic and administrative tensions.


But perhaps the greatest barriers are the predominantly national system of higher education and the central powers and resources determining LED and placemaking. Despite the assumption of university core roles, the Levelling Up White Paper pulled its punches on specific requirements of the university sector. Core HE roles and functions are currently out-of-scope of devolution agreements in England, and such local commissioning budgets as exist are provided nationally for specific schemes and programmes which are themselves effectively specified and authorised nationally. There are international examples (Germany and Scandinavia are referenced) where this is much less acute.


The episode stands by the good news, and we believe the caveats are surmountable. But until there is fundamental change in national-local relations more broadly, and university incentives for local impact specifically, one suspects university local commitments will continue, most often, to be sub-optimal.

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