Promoting public-private partnerships in ‘levelling up’ the UK

Collaborative projects between universities and their surrounding communities are helping to build stronger economies in underserved areas

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4 May 2022
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Levelling up in the UK: How science, research and innovation can help us rebuild a stronger, more inclusive economy
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In its 2019 manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged to “level-up every part of the UK”, establishing a fairer spread of investment across towns, cities, rural and coastal areas outside London and the “golden triangle” in the south of England.

Reflecting on the successes and persistent gaps three years on, university representatives and industry members from across the UK met to share their experiences at a Times Higher Education round table held in partnership with Huawei.

Opening the discussion, Alexandra Jones from the government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) stressed that, as far as policymakers were concerned, it was “collaboration across the public-private academic sectors” that made the UK research and innovation system “a success”.

BEIS aims for regions outside the southeast of England to receive at least 55 per cent of research and development budgets by 2025. “Ensuring places across the country see some of the benefits from the increase in R&D investment is going to make us a more effective, stronger science superpower,” Alexandra Jones said.

Asked how universities and industry could collaborate to target geographic disparities, Richard Jones, vice-president of regional innovation at the University of Manchester, gave the example of his own city’s civic agreement between all five universities in the area.

Arrangements such as this enable academia to address some of the gaps in government thinking, particularly around linking skills and innovation agendas, Richard Jones suggested.

Welcoming the government’s levelling-up White Paper, Richard Jones said “having a mission is a really big signal” but a lack of connectivity between research funding and public health outcomes was “disappointing”.

Sanja Bahun, dean of postgraduate research and education at the University of Essex, said her institution had proved successful at knowledge transfer partnerships, but “despite our efforts…coastal communities continue to be the most deprived communities in the UK”.

The scalability of projects remained a question, Bahun added, because the funding that could be received for them was not always sufficient or joined up.

Other panellists argued that more should be done to increase mobility and permeability between universities and civic bodies, both in and out of cities.

Inge Hill, a senior lecturer at the Royal Agricultural University, said rural creative industries had rich economic potential but were often “overlooked” or seen as a “foreign cousin” in the eyes of government. Her research showed that “creative places bring people together, not just for social well-being, but for business exchanges”.

StJohn Crean, pro vice-chancellor of research at the University of Central Lancashire, said his institution’s innovation areas had benefited previously from European funding but Brexit was presenting “challenges”.

One outcome of the changes in funding meant that Uclan had expanded its role as an “anchor” for the surrounding districts, providing a “front door for industry” and bringing students “face to face with businesses”, Crean added.

Partnerships with small and medium-sized enterprises presented a huge area of opportunity for universities, the panellists agreed. “We need to recognise the rising importance of knowledge exchange, not just in research, but broader careers”, as well as “solving practical problems through academic consultancy”, said Nick Antonopoulos, research leader at Edinburgh Napier University.

“These activities have humongous potential for impact in SMEs in the region, [and] therefore will be useful in the [levelling-up] narrative,” Antonopoulos said.

Ashley Lumsden, director of government affairs at Huawei, highlighted the importance of private investment: “As a sector overall…we have to find ways to leverage business interests because it often starts very narrow, but over time a regular investor begins to say, ‘what will actually help us have more breakthroughs?’” Here, universities had a leading role to play.

Globally, Huawei invests $22 billion a year in research and development projects. “But there is room for businesses to offer more support all the way through the lifecycle of research and engagement,” Lumsden concluded.

The panel:

  • Nick Antonopoulos, deputy vice-chancellor and vice-principal of research and innovation, Edinburgh Napier University
  • Sanja Bahun, dean of postgraduate research and education, University of Essex
  • Yvonne Barnett, deputy vice-chancellor of research and innovation, Anglia Ruskin University
  • Sally Bowden, head of research and knowledge exchange (arts and humanities), University of Nottingham
  • Sarah Chaytor, director of strategy and policy, University College London
  • Peter Clack, director (global), University of Exeter
  • Joan Concannon, director of external relations, University of York
  • StJohn Crean, pro vice-chancellor of research and enterprise, University of Central Lancashire
  • Iain Docherty, dean of Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Stirling
  • Hongbiao Dong, professor and research chair of Royal Academy of Engineering, University of Leicester
  • Inge Hill, senior lecturer of business strategy, Royal Agricultural University
  • Ceri Jones, director of research, engagement and innovation services, Swansea University
  • Alexandra Jones, director of science, research and innovation, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
  • Richard Jones, vice-president for regional innovation and civic engagement and professor of materials physics and innovation policy, University of Manchester
  • Alistair Lawrence, special projects editor, Times Higher Education (chair)
  • Timothy Luckhurst, principal of South College and associate pro vice-chancellor of engagement, Durham University
  • Ashley Lumsden, director of government affairs, Huawei
  • Louise Osborne, head of innovation, impact and business, Cornwall, University of Exeter
  • Sue Pavitt, director of the Dental Translational and Clinical Research Unit, University of Leeds
  • Geoff Rodgers, vice-provost of research, Brunel University London
  • Steve Taylor, head of strategic research development, University of Birmingham
  • Lynn Thrower, industrial strategy challenge officer, University of the Highlands and Islands


Find out more about Huawei and higher education.

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