Universities turn cold spots hot

Institutions have long served as community anchors, and their role in local growth has scope to expand, says Madeleine Atkins

October 2, 2014

Connectivity allows universities to create a virtuous circle among economic, social and cultural players in their local areas

There is renewed interest in the roles that universities and colleges can play as “placemakers” or “anchor institutions” in their locales. This is not a new story, of course: it is one that builds on a long tradition of local engagement by higher education institutions, many established in the 19th century to accelerate regional economic growth and social prosperity. But we are entering a new chapter of that story.

In part this has been sparked by the sector’s engagement with local enterprise partnerships and local authorities, supported by European or regional funding. In part it reflects an increasing commitment to multidisciplinary research that addresses societal “grand challenges”. The creation of local “living laboratories” at scale, for example, brings universities together with local partners to test possible solutions to problems. There are other drivers, too, not least universities’ interaction with Catapult centres, which develop ideas into new products and services.

We need to deepen our understanding of the ways universities can “power up” productive relationships between economic, social and cultural players in their area, and educate the 21st-century “local graduate” as well as the global one. We need not look far for examples. University incubators and business parks are starting to support innovative social enterprises as well as conventional commercial start-ups. Widening participation activities, traditionally designed to raise aspiration, are now complemented by university sponsorship of schools. A recent report by Universities UK and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, Forging Futures: Building Higher Level Skills through University and Employer Collaboration, shows that new kinds of technical education and training are being designed at bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels, to complement more traditional routes through higher education to employment. Universities have always had a role in supporting inward investment. Now some are also adopting local theatres, galleries and museums that might otherwise close. And we know from sector financial projections that significant capital investment in campuses is set to continue, contributing to local economic growth.

Such connectivity allows universities to create a virtuous circle in their local areas. Successful organisations with high-value jobs are attracted to places where there is excellent research and development, advanced continuing professional development and targeted support for growth and innovation. In turn, their presence makes it easier to raise aspiration and academic standards in schools and to prepare students for graduate-level employment. And it is easier to retain those organisations - which can attract others to cluster around them - if schools and cultural amenities are excellent, business partners are increasing productivity and local graduates are gaining appropriate knowledge and technical skills through work placements and integrated projects.

Accordingly, and following discussion with the sector in the past nine months, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has announced a call for expressions of interest under its Catalyst fund. We are looking for proposals to implement the concept of “anchor institution”, and to enhance intermediate and advanced technical skills provision. We are also inviting small and specialist institutions that do not benefit from Hefce’s higher education innovation funding to demonstrate their niche knowledge exchange potential.

Hefce is also looking to better demonstrate the return on investment of various aspects of the “anchor” role. This week we published a series of interactive maps highlighting England’s “cold spots” in higher education and, especially, in science, technology, engineering and mathematics provision. We know that solutions require sustained collaboration with local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and other education providers. Building up the evidence will boost our understanding of these complex issues - and build a case to government for further funding.

There are excellent examples of universities wholeheartedly taking up the role of anchor institutions, but if we are to maximise the contribution of higher education to economic and social prosperity, more need to follow suit.

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