In Scotland and Wales universities are to have regionalism in the form of local control over funding councils - whether they want it or not. In England, regional development authorities are on the agenda but the new white paper on their establishment (page 6) does little to clarify their educational role. Universities should welcome the prospect of their activities taking on a strengthened regional focus, but there are aspects of the white paper that are potentially threatening and unwelcome, and that ought to be rethought before legislation based on it is published.
In particular, the idea that RDAs will be able to "give a regional steer which will assist" universities, colleges and other bodies to "prepare their annual or business plans" sounds all too like the famous threat "I'm from head office, and I'm here to help". There are plenty of mentions in the white paper of wanting to "engage further and higher education fully in the regional agenda" and institutions are sure to want to respond positively. But there is no acknowledgement that universities and colleges are free-standing institutions that already make major economic contributions to their regions and whose independence is a valuable local asset.
If the RDAs do not realise this, they will turn into bullying organisations whose representatives are unwelcome on campus. And they are likely to add to the pressures on the least robust institutions. Is the RDA for the Southeast likely to lobby Oxford to produce fewer classics graduates? Or is it going to send in heavies to readjust the programmes of the local further education college - over which it will have influence, but no responsibility?
But there is plenty to welcome in the white paper. Regionalisation is a way for universities to react to new priorities, find new money - and build up a new set of relations which do not run via central government and its agents.A priority for the RDAs will be to construct proper models of regional development, in which further and higher education will have prominent places. It may turn out that some things universities have done, such as the herd-instinct construction of science parks, are not a useful model for the way ahead.
Instead, an accurate assay of ways in which universities work in the local economy might show that teaching rather than research is their main contribution. Both companies and universities should take responsibility for keeping potentially high-earning graduates in the local area. In research, the need is for more firms to be involved in projects that lead to deeper and wider links. RDAs should use new money - as well as their powers of persuasion - to encourage both. These objectives are also shared by numerous centrally-run schemes such as CASE for graduate students and the Teaching Company Scheme for research. Perhaps both would be more effective if they became regional rather than national. Certainly they would add to the scope of work now supported by TECs, which on present plans will be the main organisations doing the hard work of skills development which the white paper demands.
At the same time, the authors of the white paper seem not to have read what the Dearing report proposed on the regionalisation of higher education, especially research. If it is to be attempted, this transition will cost money, and the setting up of the RDAs is one chance of finding some. Unless it is managed carefully, regionalisation could turn into another mechanism for coping with less money. For one university, more students and less cash to teach them with: for another in the next city, a glittering research centre to whose facilities grudging access might or might not be available. More attention needs to be paid to the management of regional research centres and the procedures for gaining access to them. The danger is that they will turn into a nice present for the host institution and a source of complaints from people based elsewhere who ought to have access to them but find the practical problems overwhelming.
For new universities that have never had significant research funding, even limited access to big libraries, research equipment and other riches will be a step forward. More likely to be miserable are longer-established universities which did badly in the RAE but which have yet to accept their second-level status.
And, of course, a university can never be a wholly regional enterprise. Even in the world of RDAs, they will be funded mainly by central government. They will still have to prove that they can match national standards for teaching quality, will compete nationally in the research assessment exercise, and on a UK, European and world stage for research funds.