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The importance of universities in leading communities 

  • 17 May 2023
  • By Adam Doyle
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Adam Doyle, Head of Business Engagement and Employability at the University of Derby

Much of the focus upon university leadership has historically been within institutions. This is unsurprising given the complexity of composition of universities and the challenges the sector has faced, particularly in the last decade. Following on from Richard Calvert’s article last week around how universities can maximise their impact on place, it is clear the importance and impact a university has within its community cannot be underestimated.

The replacement of European Union funding with the UK Shared Prosperity Fund has ‘truly local decision making and better target the priorities of place’ at its core. Investment zones have a ‘culture of collaboration with higher education and research institutions’ as a defining feature of success. As my colleague Professor Warren Manning has stated, there is a need for universities to engage with industry to close higher skills gaps and attract inward investment. On paper, it sounds like universities interacting with government and industry should be straightforward.

In practice, however, it is often not so simple. The coherence of desired outcomes can become muddled when exploring the detail. Definitions of success are not always consistent. The sometimes-competing aims and subsequent interpretation of policy between institutions and the various levels of government only add to this complexity. The challenge for universities is not only being at the table to discuss their role in community development, but also being there at the appropriate time, and engaging at various levels within the partner organisation. Successful engagement is required with all of these to achieve alignment.

Context, of course, is everything, and there will be agreements between universities and their partners that are not subject to these concerns. Where they do apply, a potential route to solving this challenge starts with how we go about finding agreement. Memoranda of understanding and similarly named agreements are bread and butter of how universities interact with partners. However, the temptation is all too often a desire to have as full an agreement as possible; a ‘big bang’ that will contain spreadsheets or similar metrics-based documentation, to be picked over line by line at scheduled meetings. Whilst impressive at a first glance, such agreements carry the risk of over-adherence to the letter of the metrics within them. Output can be valued over outcome, and non-compliance with a pre-determined metric deemed a failure. The consequent risk is that such agreements, despite their complexity, are too rigid to adapt to changing or unexpected circumstances. The focus on output can lead to agreements becoming transactional in nature instead of the genuine relationship building that facilitates overcoming the complexities described above.

An alternative methodology is to agree to start with a smaller remit of relationship and then develop at pace. Two factors are essential for this methodology to succeed. The first of these is to find aspects of collaboration that generate interest, and indeed an expectation, for further opportunities with which to engage. The University of Derby’s Nuclear Skills Academy was launched in partnership with Rolls-Royce and supported by key partners including Derby City Council in September 2022. In addition to providing training for 200 apprentices from Levels 3 to 6 for at least 10 years, there are the opportunities to showcase related research, specialist facilities and the attributes of similar courses and those who study and have graduated from them. Success in innovations such as these underscore the need to have universities involved in key strategic projects from the very beginning. They also enhance trust in delivery in future projects. However, it is essential that the projects within any agreement tie in with aligned strategic plans and demonstrate tangible outcomes if they are going to achieve this success.

The second factor is ensuring the relationship facilitates continued dialogue between the parties. The business engagement teams of Derby City Council and the University and Derby have co-located on public facing university premises. This, combined with the key strategic partnership with the East Midlands Chamber of Commerce, has the intention of providing organisations with a single destination to discuss all aspects of business support that are available. Teams will be directly working together every day, informing each other of challenges businesses face and forming a deeper understanding of how each can complement the other in providing support. The continued dialogue between teams is an inherent part of this collaboration. This is intended to inform both the need and the strategic direction to assist policy alignment. Through this it is hoped that sustainable and complete solutions-based interventions are shaped to assist business engagement, regional productivity and competitiveness, and attractiveness to inward investment.

The benefits of a successful collaboration are, however, not limited to business engagement. Linked into this are the civic ambitions for both universities and local government. Universities by their very nature hold a unique place in connecting organisations together through their research and expertise. The transparency and alignment of teams within local authorities and universities working together can lead to better ways of working across all areas of organisations. The benefits of pooling information and closer alignment drive greater impact for communities and ensure all voices are heard when shaping policy.

A further consideration is the range of places – both geographic and thematic – a university can support when it comes to leadership. The co-location model for Derby city is intended to work across the county of Derbyshire, with similar one space business support between local authorities, the University, and the East Midlands Chamber being provided at key sites. The aspiration is to ensure that an understanding of the existence of support, as well as the right type of support, is identified for organisations in those areas. This information and support will then drive targeted local regeneration and inform the strategic policy direction in those areas. In doing so the aims of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund are supported, with the hope being to deliver better value for money. In this regard it should be recognised that many local authorities share similar challenges. Whilst avoiding the notion that there are ‘one size fits all’ solutions to many of these challenges, it is suggested that success in one area can inform solutions for another. Organisations such as the Society of Innovation, Technology and Modernisation have identified many of these thematic challenges and how universities can assist in place-based development.

Nearly all of these challenges are complex and require diverse areas of strength. At the same time, the benefits of working together to provide solutions are increasingly recognised by universities. Where universities can identify complementary strengths in resolving problems faced by communities, they can ensure better informed and sustainable solutions, as well as reinforcing the leading role the sector has in supporting the communities they serve.

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1 comment

  1. I went to Derby University for both my BA with Honours, and I’m hoping to study my MRes there too, and whilst I have had problems both with getting my Passport ID back in time, and getting a past employer reference written (they are on holiday now), and both of which are out of my control… I’m hoping to be able to resolve these issues in time for a September start. Thanks John

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