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Universities must strengthen links with local communities and businesses to stem graduate brain drain

  • 31 October 2017
  • By Paul Marshall

This guest blog has been written by Paul Marshall, Group Business Development Director at UPP. It recounts the discussions that were had at the HEPI-UPP roundtable events at the Party Conferences earlier this month.

Following the proposals outlined in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) Green Paper on Industrial Strategy, the Government has been looking at ways to help deepen cooperation between universities and leverage research council laboratories to drive local growth. Likewise, Universities Minister Jo Johnson recently declared that universities have a vital role to play in their local communities. It was the belief in this idea that motivated University Partnerships Programme (UPP) and HEPI to ask the higher education sector how this could be achieved.

We jointly held roundtable events at both of this year’s Labour and Conservative Party Conferences with policy makers and sector experts to discuss innovative approaches in higher education to drive regional growth. The events provided a platform to launch UPP’s report, ‘Skills to pay the bills: How students pick where to study and where to work’ on what the student population think about what more universities can do to encourage graduates to stay in their town of study to help stimulate regional growth.

As I said in my opening remarks at our roundtables, graduate retention is a crucial determinant of the medium-term economic prospects of a city and a driver of future growth, productivity and prosperity. And so too is it central to evaluating the role of universities themselves as civic and economic institutions within their communities.

The discussions at our events focused on assessing the education pipeline, asking how universities can best work with local businesses and the community, and in what way universities can create ‘stickiness’ in their region.

The education pipeline

It was suggested at our roundtables that the Government needs to address the fragmented nature of the skills system to make the progress we need. Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science & Innovation, spoke at our Labour Party Conference roundtable in Brighton and said that we need to be considering how we can make the economic impact of universities – and the economic choices of graduates – a more integral part of education policy. Professor Graham Galbraith, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, who also spoke at this event, highlighted that universities need to engage with the education pipeline and be more creative in doing so.

Attendees emphasised that there should be a parity of esteem between academic and vocational routes. Moreover, it was proposed that colleges need support from universities, especially in terms of degree apprenticeships. If we are to best facilitate links with business, we also need to question what degree universities’ teaching is aligned to regional growth needs.

We must also remember to put students at the heart of this discussion. As Lord Lucas said, universities need to talk to their graduates to keep them involved in developments to produce a set of products and skills to boost a regional hub.

Working with local businesses and communities

As Professor Galbraith said, we need an industrial strategy that oils the wheels of the university-business collaboration. It was suggested that universities themselves are increasingly becoming communities for SMEs, and that this should be stimulated. It was also recommended that we have to allow for universities to do things that no one else has thought of yet, creating their own new sectors. Establishing a climate and environment for graduates to go on to found SMEs is a valuable piece of work that deserves further attention from the sector.

So too must universities embed students’ education in the community, an example of which is NHS placements. Medical partnerships in local communities mean that students get to know the local area, and invest in it too.

At our Conservative roundtable in Manchester it was identified that whilst there is both a Research Excellence Framework (REF) and a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), there is no reward or metric for the great work universities do with businesses. Since then, Minister Jo Johnson has announced plans for a Knowledge Excellence Framework (KEF), which is set to benchmark performance in university-business collaboration and knowledge exchange.

The ‘stickiness’ of cities

Our study found that one of the most decisive factors in determining whether a student believes they will remain in their region of study is the perceived availability of graduate opportunities. Our roundtable attendees recognised how young people increasingly frame their choices about post-study life in terms of economic opportunities.

However, it’s not solely economic motivators that retain graduates. The provision of graduate housing is also central to young people’s decision-making about their medium-term futures. 38% of students list graduate housing as a priority, rising to 42% amongst those students closest to graduation. Cities and regions that combine employment opportunities with affordable accommodation are likely to succeed in driving up retention.

It is clear then that a joined-up approach is required. Universities should work closely with local and regional government to drive not only jobs, but also a stock of affordable local graduate housing.

Our roundtables stressed that universities should cement their role as civic and economic powerhouses across the UK. It was rightly acknowledged that while universities have a role at the national and international level, this also undoubtedly intersects with the regional responsibility it has. Universities must become part of a local network if they want to play a positive role in developing solutions to the graduate retention imbalance across different regions of the UK. By deepening cooperation between universities, local authorities and businesses, it will not only foster better integration, but allow each local community to grow in accordance with its own unique requirements.

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