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Keep universities anchored

Urban success breeds academic success, and vice versa. But as higher education goes global, universities risk becoming detached from their cities, says John Goddard.

The World University Rankings published by Times Higher Education at the beginning of this month made unwelcome reading for anyone concerned with universities’ contribution to a geographical rebalancing of the economy. London universities, together with Oxford and Cambridge, rose by six places on average; those in the rest of the country fell by an average of two places.

Many of the nation’s great civic universities, which their cities hope will boost local growth, have dropped down the rankings, one by as many as 37 places. Commenting on Queen Mary University London’s 30-place leap up the rankings, vice-principal Jeremy Kilburn said that the university owed its success not only to a growing research profile but also to London’s employment opportunities, rich culture, “the Olympics and the general sense that the East End is a ‘happening’ part of London—plugged into Tech City”.

The rankings do not capture the impact of research, but London’s research success is clearly linked to a flourishing urban environment, much of it created by public investment in infrastructure, scientific facilities such as the Francis Crick Institute and strong political leadership supported by England’s last remaining regional development agency. As in Silicon Valley and Boston, London’s success is not just down to free markets and academic entrepreneurship. 

Elsewhere, in complete contrast, public investment in economic development, including support for business-
related research, has been wound down. Regional development agencies have been abolished, and funding cuts have forced local authorities outside the south-east to concentrate on their core social support functions. Regional development agencies have been replaced with 39 local economic partnerships, but many of these have yet to demonstrate the capability and resources to mobilise universities in support of any rebalancing agenda.

London’s experience suggests that maximising the economic impact of investment in higher education and research requires a local, especially an urban, perspective. A recent book by Paul Vallance and me, The University and the City (Routledge, 2013), identifies universities as essential urban ‘anchor institutions’. These, to quote the Work Foundation’s definition, “do not have a democratic mandate and their primary missions do not involve regeneration or local economic development. Nonetheless their scale, local rootedness and community links are such that they are acknowledged to play a key role in local development and economic growth, representing the ‘sticky capital’ around which economic growth strategies can be built”.

Unlike companies, anchor institutions are fixed within their home city, where they have considerable investment in buildings and a strong identification with the place. In the past they have been relatively immune to institutional failures or sudden contractions in size and have helped buffer against the worst effects of economic downturns. They have been particularly important in urban economies that are less buoyant than London’s.

But universities may be becoming detached. Higher education is increasingly subject to the challenges of a global market, as reflected and fuelled by the world rankings. In this marketplace, and in a time of austerity, English universities lack the resources to deliver public goods that embed the university in the city and contribute to its economic, social, cultural and environmental development. If such activities do not directly feed into a university’s bottom line it may be forced to disengage.

While some universities may thrive in the global marketplace for research, the mobility of academic staff and national and international students will create a ‘Matthew effect’ (after the apostle), whereby the strong get stronger at the expense of others. As a result, institutions that play an important role in promoting local economic growth may become vulnerable. Markets produce winners and losers; in the case of higher education, this has inevitable geographical implications.

No part of government seems equipped to tackle this issue. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has no formal responsibility for what higher education is provided where. It does not publicly identify at-risk institutions, and takes no view on their importance as anchor institutions in less dynamic places. It is unlikely to have the resources to bail out faltering institutions, which may be a real issue in places with single institutions and no scope for local mergers. 

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has national industrial and innovation strategies but these lack a subnational dimension. Andrew Witty’s BIS-sponsored review Encouraging a British Invention Revolution was published this month. The last-minute change of title from its previous moniker, Independent Review of Universities in their Communities: Enabling economic growth, suggests that at BIS there is a limited view of the role of universities in local economies. 

Witty acknowledges the importance of “a sound understanding of a locality’s comparative economic advantage”, but he champions “arrow projects”, globally competitive ideas “uninhibited by institutional status, geography or source of funding”. His aim is to make British higher education led by industrial sector rather than place-based, with funding flows directed “by technology or industry opportunity—not by postcode”. 

The government must respond to Witty, and some coalition ministers do seem to be looking to universities to contribute to rebalancing the economy geographically, for example through their inclusion in City Deals, which provide resources to help selected cities with regeneration programmes, and their contribution to delivering the innovation strand within European regional structural funds. Witty refers to the European funds, but he does not acknowledge that they are linked to reducing interregional disparities in rates of innovation.

What is the way ahead? In The University and the City, we suggest that turbulent times for both higher education and city authorities could drive each to identify areas of mutual interest, for example by using the city as a living laboratory for research and social innovation or addressing societal challenges such as ageing and environmental sustainability—challenges that present economic opportunities with both a local and global dimension, and which for universities also feed into the Research Excellence Framework’s impact agenda. Other possibilities include work-based learning in small and medium-sized enterprises, as a way of enhancing graduate employability and establishing relations between academics and business; student enterprise programmes to boost numbers of potential new businesses; attracting mobile investment through global research links; and collaborative endeavours to create areas with the buzz of locations such as east London’s Tech City.    

This is not just a local agenda for universities, cities and LEPs. It requires universities to connect initiatives driven from the bottom up and supported by LEPs, local authorities, local business interests and civil society to top-down mechanisms such as those of the Technology Strategy Board and its Catapult centres. Notwithstanding its revised title, implementation of some of Witty’s recommendations will help.

But we also need to think about how to reinvent the civic universities that were so crucial to the development of cities outside London in the 19th century, and sustain a world-class higher education system with an explicit territorial dimension, not just a few global players within an hour of the capital. In short, we need to be more systematic in how we link higher education and territorial development policies.

John Goddard is emeritus professor of regional development studies and former deputy vice-chancellor at Newcastle University.

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