Researchers from 17 institutions have been working for three years on the £3 million initiative, The Impact of Higher Education Institutions on Regional Economies, and key findings were presented at a conference in Edinburgh this week.
Ursula Kelly, assistant director of policy and communications in the information resources directorate at the University of Strathclyde, and a co-coordinator of the project, said: “The findings are shedding new light not just on higher education impact but more importantly on the broader value of higher education and its place in our society today.
“It is showing how university staff and students are an integral part of the economic and social fabric of the country and the value being generated cuts across disciplinary and subject boundaries.
“The emerging message is that the economic importance of higher education is inextricably bound up with its wider social and cultural value and that innovation is about more than technology,” Ms Kelly said.
Moira Munro, professor in public policy at the University of Glasgow, has tracked effects of the dramatic expansion of student numbers in recent decades on cities.
She said that the influx of a large group of young, well-educated “outsiders” into cities had made “real positive impacts”, from boosting the night-time economy and helping pubs and clubs, to enhancing cultural opportunities for all.
But in a presentation at the conference, she warned that current plans to introduce market forces into English higher education, which could see some universities rapidly shrink, could have dramatic negative effects on cities.
“Universities are important civic players,” Professor Munro said. “If we go into reverse, we have to look at what civic responsibility they have to what’s happening around them.”
Separate research by Paul Benneworth, of the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, has suggested that universities’ engagement with the local community is still too narrowly defined in business terms, such as through the success of spin-off companies.
In a briefing paper on the topic, he says that community activity remains peripheral, “often abandoned when the going gets tough”, and that too many institutions adopt a “symbolic rather than substantive approach”.