Leader: Cities size up the brain gain

Local communities are rediscovering a Victorian-era passion for higher education.

February 7, 2008

Yes, universities are wonderful. Every city wants at least one. They are far more inclusive and productive than the cathedrals that were once de rigueur for cities with any serious civic pretensions. And while universities look slightly less magnificent on the skyline, they can be erected in next to no time. Lincoln realised its mistake a few years ago: although adorned with a spectacular cathedral, it had no university to flaunt. It soon acquired one. Peterborough is rumoured to be feeling bashful about the nakedness of its higher education credentials, though Ely seems content to have none. But then, does anyone really know where Ely is?

It is easy to see why municipalities have rediscovered the passion for higher education that animated Victorian councillors. The big manufacturing towns lacked an educated elite steeped in the new sciences required by the Industrial Revolution - engineering, chemistry, medicine - so they set up establishments to provide them. Today's town halls are equally clear about the benefits of universities: jobs created, businesses developed, buildings refurbished, talent imported, schoolchildren inspired, theatres revived, music encouraged, art fostered, opportunities multiplied. Experts at Staffordshire University have even put a price on the advantages and devised a formula to quantify how much a university contributes locally: staff + student spend x 1.7 (knock-on effects). A lot x 1.7 = an awful lot more.

Not every citizen is convinced that universities are a good thing. Expansionary campuses that encroach on green-belt land or new buildings that threaten to intrude on cherished views have been the focus of recent opposition in York, Coventry and Oxford. Tensions have been particularly raw in neighbourhoods swollen by an influx of students packed into a few streets. Soaring house prices, noisy parties, the disregard casually inflicted by the young and impermanent on the sedate and long-established have soured relations between town and gown. Residents besieged by student hordes could be forgiven for wondering whether the economic Viagra is worth the vomit.

Most communities seem prepared to overlook the occasional upset and accept that higher education is an asset. But while a city with a university or two attached can expect that the advantages of having one greatly outnumber the disadvantages, it should not assume that the benefits are automatic. American academic Richard Florida has pointed out that the benefits vary - and the variation has much to do with a city's capacity to absorb the stimulus it gets from a university as much as an institution's ability to provide it.

Technological innovation, he argues, is only one ingredient for a vibrant local economy. For technology to really make an impact locally, it must be mixed with large dollops of talent and tolerance. Good research and excellent academics are mobile. For them to stick around and tempt others to join them, the community must offer an attractive quality of life measured not only by the number of art galleries and theatres but also by a city's social assets - its diversity and broad-mindedness.

The presence of a university sets up a virtuous circle - adding to and enhancing the existing creative economy as more educated, cultured citizens attract like-minded souls. Cities that for whatever reason are culturally challenged risk the intellectual capital emanating from their universities seeping away to rival towns. The earliest known example of this in the UK was in 1209, when Oxford's hostile townsfolk ejected its students. They promptly flounced off and founded Cambridge. That showed Oxford. But if only they had made it a further 15 miles up the road, they could have shown Ely ...

gerard.kelly@tsleducation.com.

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