HuaweiHow universities and industry can lead the way on closing disparity in Scotland

How universities and industry can lead the way on closing disparity in Scotland

With the UK government pledging to “level up opportunities”, experts from industry and academia discuss how Scottish universities and organisations can drive positive change

Universities can play a crucial role in supporting the levelling-up agenda in Scotland but must have the frameworks to build business confidence and attract investment.

A Times Higher Education roundtable, held in partnership with Huawei, examined the opportunities and challenges for Scottish universities and industry as the UK moves towards a place-based strategy for science and innovation.

Stephen Ingledew, executive chair at FinTech Scotland, said there were three key considerations, including navigating the “new economic paradigm” led by a digital and data-driven economy.

Second, he said, opportunities were emerging from embracing science and innovation as drivers of economic development, for example by developing co-created hubs. Third, there were “enablers” such as identifying which “centres of excellence” Scotland should prioritise, for example, life sciences research.

Against this backdrop, John Gill, editor of THE, asked how levelling up fitted into the context of Scottish universities.

Brad MacKay, senior vice-principal and vice-principal for international strategy and external relations at the University of St Andrews, said levelling up was about providing “meaningful opportunity that’s inclusive and diverse”.

“Universities are unquestionably anchor institutions and important economic drivers within the regions and will continue to be,” he said. “If it doesn’t sit within a wider set of structures and frameworks that can take advantage of that, then for me the question is, are there limits to what universities can do as anchor institutions in driving that levelling-up agenda?”

“Universities, particularly in Scotland where they are such a significant force for innovation, have to sit within wider frameworks, whether that’s industrial strategies or incentives that attract investment and businesses.”

Dave Robertson, vice-principal and head of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, said universities would need to help drive cultural change and convene partnerships to foster innovation. “Every city in Scotland is a small city, so you rely a lot on whatever it is the university does to give you that sort of attractor,” Robertson said.

Tim Bedford, associate principal at the University of Strathclyde, said universities could partner with organisations to make an ecosystem more attractive, for example, the Glasgow City Innovation District.

He questioned whether universities should find a different way to measure their economic impact. “We’re still measuring the economic impact largely in terms of the spend of students, the fees of overseas students, the salaries that get spent locally. And yet, if you think about the impact we’re trying to have on society, that’s utterly different,” he said.

Judith Phillips, deputy principal of research at the University of Stirling, agreed that there was a chance to reassess impact, for example by focusing on social aspects, not only economic drivers. In relation to levelling up, she pointed out the uniqueness of Scotland and the fact that disparities in remote and rural areas of the country could be “quite huge”.

Professor Phillips also suggested there were “huge opportunities” for Scottish universities to collaborate with the UK’s other devolved nations and countries in Scandinavia rather than only looking south to England.

To attract industry investment into communities, Scottish universities would be essential in delivering local skills needs and capacity, said Derek Craig, EPSRC head of regional engagement for Scotland for UKRI.

“It will be a key factor in order to drive that foreign direct investment as well, which, overall, will be essential to what the government is hopefully trying to achieve by having a strategy like this,” he said.

Michael Hill-King, collaboration director at Huawei, asked what role the general public should play if the triple-helix model of innovation – bringing together academia, industry and government – was the way forward for levelling up. 

“I think there’s actually a lot of activity which could be done, but the challenge is in how we bring them in and how we embrace them as part of the system,” Hill-King concluded.

The panel:

  • Tim Bedford, associate principal, University of Strathclyde
  • James Brodie, commercial director of industrial economy, China-Britain Business Council
  • Derek Craig, EPSRC head of regional engagement for Scotland, UKRI
  • John Gill, editor, THE (chair)
  • Michael Hill-King, collaboration director, Huawei
  • Stephen Ingledew, executive chair, FinTech Scotland
  • Brad MacKay, senior vice-principal and vice-principal for international strategy and external relations, University of St Andrews
  • Dave Robertson, vice-principal and head of the College of Science and Engineering, University of Edinburgh
  • John Rowan, vice-principal, University of Dundee
  • Judith Phillips, deputy principal of research, University of Stirling
  • Brian Williams, professor, Edinburgh Napier University

Watch the roundtable on demand above or on the THE Connect YouTube channel.

Find out more about Huawei and higher education.

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