Government recognises growth is already in the university mission

Greg Clark’s portfolio will benefit institutions by recognising the vital role they play in local communities, Lord Heseltine argues

July 24, 2014

Source: Miles Cole

Reactivating local economies without the support of our universities and the science community would be fighting with one arm tied behind our back

Greg Clark’s appointment to the Cabinet indicates the government’s determination to empower England’s great cities and their economies. Of particular interest is the prime minister’s decision to add responsibility for universities and science to his portfolio.

No one should have any doubts about the prime purpose of universities: achieving and practising excellence.

The responsibility of vice-chancellors to ensure the excellence of our universities is paramount. We owe it to our young people, who must hold their own in an ever-more competitive world. The achievement of that excellence has consequences beyond our own students. We attract the cream of the world’s young talent to study here. They take their British experience out into the four corners of the world and are a priceless asset.

So should universities see their energies diverted into a wider agenda of economic growth? It is a futile question. Vice-chancellors and their colleagues already play a central role in the evolution of local enterprise partnerships, the 39 partnerships between local authorities and businesses spread across England, and I have been impressed by the enthusiasm that they bring to the job. Universities are significant contributors to the strength of local economies. I have watched the expansion of our university populations transform the inner-city areas of the great 18th- and 19th-century cities. The construction of student accommodation, and the cultural and social life that students and academics create seven days a week for most of the year, generates jobs and makes formerly semi-abandoned city centres alive and exciting.

Much research is blue skies, and its very unpredictability is important, but other research has a more targeted purpose and academics can play a central role in the exploitation of their findings. Here again, the economic consequences are well established. Facilities such as business incubators help inventors to exploit their work and to apply it locally. Success in a particular field can lead to clustering: recently we have seen two major pharmaceutical companies move to be near the academic excellence of the University of Cambridge.

In a recent round of bidding by local enterprise partnerships, there were a number of applications to improve standards of education in primary and secondary schools, notably from the Northamptonshire LEP and the North East. A welcome development would be the involvement of universities in raising standards in local schools, from which a significant number of their students come.

As minister for cities, Clark is responsible for drawing together funding from across many government programmes, particularly transport, skills and housing, into a single pot. Local enterprise partnerships bid for this money with specific proposals, and a fortnight ago the government announced funding of £6 billion to meet the ambition of these local plans.

Our universities can and should play a central role in mobilising the strengths that exist all over our country. A central feature of a local economic plan is to look at the strengths and weaknesses that exist, and the academy can contribute objectivity to this process. In any locality there are self-interests defending their own, boundaries that have no logical economic rationale and hostilities born of long-term rivalry. Academic detachment can be an important part of the process of breaking down yesterday’s barriers. Universities employ overseas academics and have international postgraduates who know first-hand what our competitors abroad are doing. They bring a perspective that, in the pursuit of the UK’s competitiveness, can be a breath of fresh air. Reactivating our local economies without the enthusiastic involvement of our universities and the science community would be fighting with one arm tied behind our back.

The determination of science policy must remain a government responsibility. Determining research priorities and the allocation of funds is difficult and controversial but it cannot be avoided, particularly where public funding is limited. But the consequences of science policy spread far out into the economy.

In politics there is always the anxiety that the work of one government will be undone by the next, but the localist agenda is now agreed by all parties and local enterprise partnerships are the accepted vehicle for economic regeneration. The determination to rebalance our economy and rebuild our cities is at the forefront of this government’s agenda. The chancellor, George Osborne, has outlined a vision for the North of England, while the concept to link Hull with Liverpool in a grand chain of English cities – the whole equal to anything the world can offer – is breath-taking. No one doubts that universities will be an important part of any such programme. Clark’s appointment is the clearest possible indicator of the central role the government wants them to play.

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