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Universities are essential in our aim to reduce regional disparities and level up regional prosperity throughout the UK

  • 25 June 2021
  • By David Melville

Professor Sir David Melville CBE, Board Member, Policy Connect and former Vice-Chancellor, University of Kent kindly contributed this blog.

University research in the UK has always remained at the forefront of invention. The success of the Oxford University – AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is testament to the ingenuity and dynamism which can result from the effective collaboration of academia, the private sector and the public sector. Establishing a new era of collaboration between universities and private and public partners will be essential to achieving the Government’s ambition of levelling-up the economy and tackling the regional disparities which have plagued the UK for so long.

If we don’t support universities… it will be difficult to achieve the Government’s ambition of levelling-up

Capturing the moment, the Higher Education Commission at Policy Connect is underway with its current inquiry into the key role universities will need to play in order to level up regional economies, hearing evidence from a wide variety of universities, businesses and research centres on their experiences with research and development. If we don’t support universities expanding their role in local communities and economies, it will be difficult to achieve the Government’s ambition of levelling-up. As centres of research and economic activity, universities are important convenors of collaboration on innovation, helping to create growth, boost investment and generate skills in their local areas. Expanding this function of universities is particularly important in economically disadvantaged regions as the inquiry aims to deliver policies which can enable universities to play a pivotal role driving regional growth throughout the nation.

The Higher Education Commission’s inquiry, co-chaired by Lord Norton of Louth and former Universities’ Minister, the Rt. Hon. Chris Skidmore MP, has been investigating the role of universities’ research in delivering regional prosperity. We have heard from leading figures from business, academia and the public sector on the challenges they face in producing innovation, delivering well-paid jobs and economic growth to communities throughout the UK. Challenges related to funding, skills and capacity all exist – meaning that the UK has lagged behind competitor nations in terms of our spending on R&D, currently standing at approximately 1.7% of GDP. Other nations have strong government backed research centres, enabling them to increase or maintain higher levels of spending on R&D, such as the Fraunhofer institutes in Germany. Conversely, the UK will need to rely on its world-leading higher education sector, which is home to many of the world’s premier research universities, if we are to reach or exceed 2.4% of spending on R&D. Equally we need to ensure that there is capacity across the whole country to grow applied university research and link it to commercial exploitation

Universities are natural ‘anchor institutions’ for their locality and region. As major employers, skills providers, business partners and centres of research excellence, they are vital to the economic life of their region; providing a pivotal role in assisting businesses to innovate, scale-up and upskill. Their collaborative work with industry is essential to enabling innovation and attracting inward and foreign direct investment into their local area. We heard directly from leading success stories in the sector, including the University of Sheffield’s AMRC, the University of Warwick’s WMG and the University of Strathclyde’s Innovation District in Glasgow city centre. These initiatives have successfully bridged the gap between academia and the private sector to deliver consistent innovation outputs, helping to increase investment and job growth in their local areas.

Universities can serve a clear role as ‘convenors’, capable of bringing in a wide variety of different organisations – from large multinationals to SMEs – in order to work on innovation projects and create a business eco-system. The convening power of successful university-led initiatives has the ability to boost the economic regeneration of an area. For example, the University of Sheffield-affiliated AMRC has witnessed the regeneration of a former coalfield into a growing innovation eco-system with a wide range of leading manufacturing firms, such as Boeing, Airbus and Rolls-Royce.

For the Government to improve the future economic prospects of a region, it will need to harness its underlying strengths and competitive advantages. Making use of pre-existing industries and geographical advantages is critical to building business clusters which can compete nationally and internationally for well-paid jobs and investment. Universities are core to this approach, as many contain cutting-edge research facilities and equipment, often unavailable to private sector firms. The expertise, equipment and facilities which universities provide a region are pivotal in helping to build capacity for research and development. This is particularly the case in areas that are low-R&D intensive locations – many without the presence of major innovative businesses. The Higher Education Commission’s inquiry has revealed just how significant these university facilities could be to areas with low R&D activity, as they form centres of innovation which can assist businesses to innovate. If we are truly to tackle the regional inequality which has blighted the UK for many decades, the Government must review its funding in order to level up the provision  of university research facilities, innovation clusters and Catapults.

The Higher Education Commission has recently launched its Public Call for Evidence for the inquiry, as we invite all interested stakeholders and organisations to submit their responses to the inquiry. In order to make sure people from across the UK have the opportunity to contribute, we are launching a second round of submissions. This means you can respond to the inquiry’s Public Call for Evidence for another two weeks, until Friday 2nd July. We hope to hear from you on how universities can help to deliver regional growth and deliver prosperity throughout the UK.

Editor’s Note: The Higher Education Commission is an independent body made up of leaders from the education sector, the business community and the major political parties. The Commission examines higher education policy, holds evidence-based inquiries, and produces written reports with recommendations for policymakers.

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