Just let the drivers get on with it

Universities already play a key role in powering regional growth. Another diktat demanding more on that score may be unhelpful

November 27, 2014

When George Osborne delivers his Autumn Statement next week, we may learn more about why the universities and science minister’s brief was expanded to include responsibility for cities.

In last year’s statement there was a policy bolt from the blue, with the plan to abolish the student numbers cap (still the source of some incredulity – notably from the Higher Education Commission, which last week warned that under the current funding regime it “puts the financial sustainability of the sector at risk”).

This year the big announcement for universities is likely to be on postgraduate loans, which if it materialises will be long overdue, but there may also be a focus on northern cities as part of the push to rebalance the UK’s economy. If so, then universities will play an integral role in the strategy.

Seventy-two of our universities are located in the 15 largest metropolitan areas, and many were founded with their local contribution as a core mission

Writing in this week’s Times Higher Education, the economist Jim O’Neill, a proud Mancunian and former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, sets out some of the ways universities might be co-opted, or at least encouraged, to drive regional growth.

One recommendation from the RSA City Growth Commission, which O’Neill chaired, is for new approaches and incentives to keep students in the city in which they graduate.

Another is that universities should club together to respond to Osborne’s call for “a northern answer to the Crick Institute”, and O’Neill predicts that an announcement along these lines may be imminent.

The RSA’s recommendations are discussed in more detail in a report published last month, which points out that 72 of our universities are located in the 15 largest metropolitan areas, and that many were founded with their local contribution as a core mission. What’s more, while businesses are fickle, market-driven beasts, “universities often have deep historic links with the places in which they are located…no university has ever relocated out of a metro”, the report points out.

It’s true that universities are unlikely to “do an MK Dons” (the name taken by Wimbledon FC after it moved lock, stock and goalposts to the greener pastures of Milton Keynes).

But it’s also worth noting the mixed signals being sent to universities: on the one hand they are no longer protected from commercial pressure, while on the other they are being feted as unshakeable “anchor institutions” on which cities can rely.

The RSA is right, of course, about universities’ commitment to their region, but is it also right that the switch to a more self-reliant funding model will further strengthen those ties?

The commission talks of the need for “a different system of incentives” to reward such behaviour, and perhaps such incentives can be found and implemented in a mutually beneficial way. But there’s also the risk, as noted in our news pages this week, of a chipping away at autonomy.

Universities in deindustrialised areas of the North are already beacons in the economic gloom, and many will be wary of yet another set of incentives and demands at a time of near constant change.

At least the RSA commission – and perhaps the chancellor in his statement next week – recognises how crucial the breadth and depth of our world-leading higher education system is in a country that in so many other respects is far too focused on London.

john.gill@tesglobal.com

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