Local issues will need very close attention

October 2, 2014

The two opinion pieces on the implications for higher education of the Scottish referendum raise questions for universities in England as debate about the governance of England begins.

Sir David Bell, who backed the “no” vote (“No: it’s the right answer”, 25 September), says that “higher education could benefit from further devolution to the cities and regions. Universities are major players in local and regional economies, and enhancing powers at that level could be beneficial [and] almost certainly…more useful than an English parliament.”

Willy Maley, who supported a “yes” vote (“It should have been ‘aye’ ”, 25 September), goes beyond the narrowly economic role of universities. Referring to the long Scottish tradition of higher education contributing
to the public good, he suggests that: “As academics we must be more engaged with the communities our campus sits among. Widening participation in higher education is as vital as widening participation in politics.” Like many, he puts the local dimension into a Scottish debate around “what are universities for?”.

Let’s hope that the role of universities in English civil society beyond the Westminster bubble will not be neglected in debate about the governance of England. As the Higher Education Funding Council for England has recognised in the latest call for bids to its Catalyst fund, universities are key “anchor” institutions in their local communities over and beyond their direct and indirect employment effects.

But developing and enhancing this role in the context of the current structures and mechanisms for funding both higher education and local government in England will not be easy. As in other highly centralised countries, there is no geographical dimension to higher education policy, and local government has no responsibility in this area. The system has evolved with no top-down planning, and there is the added complication of the dominance of London and the South East.

In this context, a number of challenges come to mind. How can institutional rankings be reconciled with the need to develop a higher education system sensitive to different communities’ needs? In the higher education market, will we see vulnerable institutions emerge in places where a university plays a key anchoring role but which themselves are places that are highly vulnerable economically, socially and culturally? Where do universities fit into ideas of giving more powers to leading city regions?

There are many questions like these around the place of universities in any more devolved system of English governance. As many of these are highly contentious within higher education and politics more generally, theyneed to be taken forward by those outside the sector. Hopefully some respected independent body will take them up.

John Goddard
Emeritus professor of regional development studies
Newcastle University

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