Universities as regenerators?

Shrinking local government funding, a lack of EU finance post-Brexit and the Industrial Strategy green paper could mean that universities’ role as anchor institutions, driving local regeneration and acting as place makers, will grow. So, what does this role look like?

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy describes an anchor institution as being “one that, alongside its main function, plays a significant and recognised role in a locality by making a strategic contribution to the local economy”. Universities undoubtedly fall within this by being anchor institutions in three main ways: economically, culturally and in a civic capacity.

Universities as anchors

The most popular focus is on universities’ economic role as anchor institutions. This can be wide ranging: leading on contributing to research and development; supplying and hiring people, expertise, land, facilities and connections; promoting enterprise, growth, the development of industry and the wider area as well as the carrying out of infrastructure works. Universities are taking an ever more proactive role in co-ordinating, and at times coalescing(!), various stakeholders comprising central and local government, LEPs, business and developers to both carry out regeneration projects and to also attract the necessary funding, political support and corporate/individual partners while at all times being mindful of the universities’ own charitable objects.

Driving local regeneration – the Midlands Engine

In a climate of economic uncertainty, local devolution, shrinking public funding and an increased demand for, and competition among, HE, universities’ economic role in driving regeneration is growing and evolving. Universities, as one of the anchor institutions in an area, need to become even more involved in supporting places that are economically vulnerable. An example could be post-Brexit, in cities such as Exeter, Sunderland, Cardiff and elsewhere which are heavily exposed to European export markets. It’s no coincidence that many of these places are university cities. The government’s Industrial Strategy green paper recognises and encourages this.

For instance, investing in research and innovation is one of the pillars of the Strategy. While more than three quarters of publicly funded research in the UK is already carried out by universities, ensuring even greater collaboration between universities, business and the wider community is key to improving the UK’s productivity and our local and national economic growth.

For universities to really develop their economic anchor institution role, there needs to be funding. With the additional £2 billion of funding per year for research and development by 2020 announced in the 2016 Autumn Statement, the suggestion in the Industrial Strategy to expand the Higher Education Innovation Fund, the March 2017 Budget’s focus on lifelong learning and further education and the funding in the Midlands Engine Strategy for several education projects in the region (such as £8 million for a new teaching university in Hereford focussed on engineering and £1.9 million to create a new Creative Digital Skills campus in Nottingham); there are positive moves in this area.

De-risking development

Another evolving trend involving universities as economic drivers of local regeneration is their role, sometimes alongside local authorities, in de-risking development schemes to facilitate (community) regeneration, collaboration and shared, mixed use projects. An example is science parks, where in some cases it would not have been financially viable or attractive for private sector developers, funders or corporate occupiers to proceed with the development in isolation. Incubator hubs are a further example. There is therefore a growing opportunity for universities as anchor institutions to work with local business districts and LEPs.

An illustration of this is the government’s £4 million investment to create a growth focused Midlands Engine Partnership to bring councils, commerce, LEPs and academic institutions together. This multi-party local collaboration often allows universities to enhance their own estate and research/teaching opportunities, while the wider community benefits from universities’ involvement in the delivery and funding of local regeneration projects which may otherwise not have proceeded.

Cultural and civic contributions

I referred above to universities’ civic and cultural roles as local anchor institutions. It is not just about universities’ economic contribution, workforce development or their pivotal role in a research, development and knowledge–based economy. Universities also have a cultural and civic contribution to local communities, helping to, and often leading on, shaping and steering a place.

For instance, freshers’ week at universities, and students themselves, increasingly focus on the role and responsibility of the university, its staff and students in the local community. This outward facing, participatory role in a locality is an increasing “selling point” for universities when attracting potential staff and students. Not only does this participation and opportunity help to expand and diversify the experience and skills set of HE institutions’ people, it is also a further tool in making graduates “employer ready” for the twenty-first century. This could be via student/staff volunteering in the community, free legal advice centres on campus, a “one-stop-shop” for SMEs and university spin-out companies and the expansion of clusters of commercialisation to access universities’ staff, students, land, buildings and facilities.

Several commentators have drawn a distinction between a university being an anchor for a city/locality and an anchor to a locality/economy. Universities are also anchors for a local area. This is through their role as a supplier of “talent”, by retaining their graduates in a region, in attracting, encouraging and collaborating with companies and cultural institutions and as buyers of labour, goods and services. There’s also a recognition that universities are in a local community for the long-term. It is through this economic, cultural and civic role that universities can affect and improve the image and perception of a place, benefit demographics, education, skills and training opportunities as well as removing barriers between education and communities.

It will also help to achieve a more even spread of economic growth across England – another core element of the Industrial Strategy. Universities will have a key role in helping to determine what this looks like and how it is to be achieved. Many stakeholders, such as University Alliance, also believe that there is a growing role for universities and other anchor institutions in promoting tolerance in cities and local communities.

While the role of universities as anchor institutions, driving innovation, is recognised in the Industrial Strategy green paper, what are the potential barriers?

Tackling the skills shortage

I have already mentioned funding as one key consideration. In addition to a rather disparate and inconsistent approach to local devolution across the country (meaning mixed opportunities for anchor institutions to both get involved with/lead on local regeneration and an ability to influence local placemaking), another challenge – but also an opportunity - is the UK-wide skills shortage. Developing skills is a key tenet of the Industrial Strategy and of regionally – focussed initiatives.

An example is the Midlands Engine Strategy which has launched the Midlands Skills Challenge – a collaboration between local bodies such as the (future) Mayor of the West Midlands, education institutions, councils and others to, backed by funding, work in partnership to improve skills across the region. Universities are also looking at the proposals on high level technical education to ensure STEM skills is integrated between higher education and all other routes. Notwithstanding this, should the Industrial Strategy place an even greater emphasis on the role of universities in growing and diversifying the UK’s skills base such as developing degree apprenticeships etc?

Many interested parties, such as Universities UK, are undertaking a review of higher level skills and will be feeding responses into the green paper.

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