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Completing the jigsaw: the key role of smaller and specialist universities in local, national and international economies

  • 27 September 2022
  • By Anthony McClaran

This blog was kindly contributed by Anthony McClaran, GuildHE Chair and Vice-Chancellor of St Mary’s University, Twickenham.

Small and specialist universities have long been anchors within their communities and specific sectors in the economy. Frequently located in smaller towns, on the edge of cities, or in rural or coastal locations, many are also innovative, agile industry experts that carry out high impact, practical research and knowledge exchange. Closely aligned to the professions they serve, they are well-positioned to stimulate the growth of key priority economies, such as the creative industries, health and agriculture.

GuildHE’s new Building the Jigsaw report uses a combined experimental heat mapping and case study approach to capture the plethora of knowledge exchange activities by smaller and specialist higher education providers, bringing new evidence to the sector not always apparent in traditional statistics and often in unexpected locations throughout the UK. 

The report highlights a number of case studies, from cybersecurity to the support and care of people with dementia. The example of the agricultural and land-based sector, for instance, demonstrates the importance of resilient food supply chains to feed the nation and the key role of specialist, land-based universities in developing innovative technological approaches to food production and creating more efficient – and sustainable – approaches to farming and agri-tech. The studies reveal a surprising number of initiatives and collaborations being undertaken by smaller and specialist institutions that are driving impact, prosperity, and actively addressing local, regional, national and even international, economic, social and cultural challenges. 

The UK Government has been working on its intention to improve public investment in research and development across the whole country. This, coupled with the levelling up agenda and the plan to increase investment in research and development to 2.4 per cent of the GDP by 2027, presents far-reaching implications for universities in the UK. The role that small and specialist providers have had, and can continue to play, in uplifting innovation and economies across the UK should be recognised and leveraged. 

Ninety-five per cent of GuildHE institutions submitted world leading research to the Research Excellence Framework 2021. Many of GuildHE’s institutions were in the top 10 per cent for several categories of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). The case studies in this report, when supplemented by the achievements in the REF and KEF, aim to drive recognition of the need to find better ways to capture excellence in diversity, both in regions and subjects.

The studies were carried out in 2019/20 before the COVID-19 pandemic occurred so some of the detail covered may have changed but the broad conclusions remain the same. If anything, the importance of capturing the role of a university in its place and industries has never been more relevant as we look towards an economic, social and cultural recovery that addresses the global, regional and local inequalities exposed by the pandemic.

Natural innovators, many smaller and specialist institutions know their regions well and will be a critical part of generating economic recovery in those areas hit hardest and with potentially the longest road to recovery. 

GuildHE’s new Building the Jigsaw report provides some of the jigsaw pieces that smaller institutions add to the UK’s innovation picture and their potential to aid an innovation-driven, socioeconomic recovery from Covid-19 in towns, cities and regions throughout the UK.

Top three report takeaways for policymakers and institutions:

1. Innovation does not always mean brand new, particularly when considered at local levels. The UK Government’s definition of innovation is ‘the creation and application of new knowledge to improve the world’. The examples provided in the report are not all brand new at a global or even national level. However, they are newly applied and – more importantly – deliver benefits for the localities and industries that institutions work with. 

2. Capturing impact – positive and negative – is important. With the investments placed in innovation, research and development, impact and positive impact need to be demonstrated to a range of audiences, not just funders and governments. Local and professional communities need to see the results of collective taxpayer investment and to be included in solutions for growth. The Institute for Community Studies report Why don’t they ask us? The role of communities in levelling up offers some useful perspectives on the views of local communities in relation to growth funds.

3. Funding for success requires a funding mix. The UK Government Innovation Strategy states, ‘one size does not fit all, with different types of research and innovation being suited to different lab structures, funding agencies, and locations’, which is important. Different interventions require different funding solutions. If the UK is to achieve its innovation and research and development targets, the Government and funders need to fund a wide range of institutions in different locations. Simple wins could include extending the reach of the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) and widening the terms of the already successful Strength in Places Fund to support places with lower economic output but emerging innovation potential. Institutions, too, must also be brave with the resources that they have. The collaborations highlighted in the case studies would not have come about without long-term commitment and investment in relationships. They can lead the way by example, incentivising others to support innovative projects that lead to socioeconomic recovery growth.

GuildHE is an officially recognised representative body for UK Higher Education. Our members include universities, university colleges, further education colleges and specialist institutions. Member institutions include some major providers in professional subject areas including art, design and media, music and the performing arts; agriculture and food; education; business and law, the built environment; health and sports.

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