Co-ops now pay dividends

April 4, 1997

Old rivals in the Northeast are sinking their differences and embarking on joint ventures in a bid to make an international impact. In our latest regional focus, THES reporters examine an outbreak of collaboration

Collaboration is now the name of the game in the Northeast, "out of necessity and choice", says Tony Robards, York pro vice chancellor. "Even big universities are not big enough on their own."

Some universities have come to the perhaps ironic conclusion that the only way to achieve international significance is through local collaboration. "This is increasingly demanded of us and we are now forming specific associations with relevant local bodies such as colleges, firms and government offices," says Professor Robards.

York, Leeds and Sheffield universities have recently formed a consortium to conduct a Pounds 250,000 project to audit their biotechnology research and identify areas that are exploitable.

"In the past, we were all at each others' throats, but the benefits of these links are now seen as overwhelming," says Professor Robards. "Apart from anything, it keeps costs down. And we see collaboration not competition as the way to strengthen the region. The key is to match the expertise of universities to the demands of economic development."

That means getting known and liked in the local region. Colin Mellors, pro vice chancellor of Bradford University, says a gradual change is taking place. "Where collaboration was once ad hoc and piecemeal, regionalisation has focused for us where our conflicts lie and more importantly where collaboration potential exists."

There is a growing realisation among universities of the central role they play in the economic and social well-being of the local environment, Professor Mellors says. But he acknowledges that for old universities in particular, it can be difficult to balance international aspirations while also recognising loyalties and commitments to neighbouring communities.

He says: "We must do both. Making a real impact on the community is not out of kilter with high-level research which benefits enormously from addressing real world problems."

The Yorkshire and Humber Universities Association is a collaborative venture between the region's nine universities that aims to carve out a significant role in regional development. Christine Leigh, of Leeds University, who oversees the association, says the vice chancellors are aiming to focus on a detailed business agenda for the region and trying to structure their relationships far more carefully than in the past.

At the back of everyone's mind is the question of whether or not a new Labour government would push regional strategies further up the political agenda, and whether the Dearing report committee would recommend regionalising higher education funding.

That is an idea not generally welcomed in Leeds. Leslie Wagner, vice chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University, rejects the suggestion that the area has too many full-time student places (105,000 in 1995/96).

"We support regional cooperation - with caveats," he says. "The funding council must not put us in too much of a straitjacket. In some instances the region may be too narrow a focus. It may make no more sense for us to cooperate with Hull or Humberside than Manchester. Just being in a region, I believe, is not reason enough in itself to cooperate."

Alan Wilson, vice chancellor of Leeds University, says his is an international institution first. Next comes the national role and lastly the local sphere. Nevertheless he stresses the interdependence of universities and their immediate surroundings.

"The national funding councils ought to stress regional collaboration but not regional funding," he says. "This would imply regional recruitment and universities must recruit in the national marketplace."

According to figures compiled by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, Yorkshire and Humberside imported ,000 more students than they exported in 1995/96 (see table).

The regeneration of the Northeast is central to the mission of the University of Sunderland, which has no difficulty placing itself firmly in a local context. Vice chancellor Anne Wright points to partnerships with other agencies to encourage regeneration and building of new skills. Pathways, for instance, is a one-stop shop in the city centre that offers advice on work and learning opportunities in collaboration with the Training and Enterprise Council, Sunderland City College and the employment and careers service.

"As a community of 17,000 students and staff the university also has a major impact on the city's economy", Dr Wright says. "It is estimated that last year we generated, in addition to Pounds 60 million turnover, over Pounds 50 million locally through employment, buying local services and student spending."

Similarly keen to stress its regional impact, the nearby University of Northumbria highlights staff expenditure at Pounds 43 million with student spending power close behind at Pounds 42 million.

Vice chancellor Gilbert Smith says: "We meet a lot of the labour needs of the region. We also retain a lot of graduates here - of all the students that come from outside the region, 9 per cent of them stay."

Down the road, the University of Durham stresses its role in local tourism ("not many universities have a castle as part of their campus") and the fact that it attracts high-calibre students to the Northeast, many of whom remain in the region after graduation.

"We have 10,000 students and a lot of them end up teaching in local schools or being employed by local companies", says Michael Prestwich, pro vice chancellor.

He also points to the fact that the university itself has benefited from the regeneration of the Northeast as well as contributing to it.

"We have been fortunate that our engineering department was never really based in heavy industry, so, as the face of the Northeast industry has evolved, we've been well placed to move rapidly into the high- tech areas such as micro-electronics."

Old and new universities are clearly coming at the issue from different directions. John Tarrant, vice chancellor of Huddersfield University, says that its local roots are paramount.

"The new universities started as local institutions and moved their sights up to international status and here we converge with the older universities which are tending to start from a national and international perspective and work down to a local root."

Roger King, vice chancellor of the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside, is aware that the term "regional university" has sometimes attracted negative connotations and wants to make clear its real implications. He says: "The expression refers to a natural catchment area in which the university seeks to become the national first-choice destination for its inhabitants. But, secondly, a regional university seeks to offer its services wherever possible in support of regional development. These range from teaching and learning opportunities to research. And thirdly, a regional university serves its region best by having excellence in its national and international activity."

An increasingly regional authority under a possible Labour government is being anticipated by the Yorkshire and Humberside partnership, which brings together chambers of commerce, TECs, universities, development associations and local authorities in the region. The director, Trevor Hopkinson, a secondee from Yorkshire Electricity, says that he regards universities as central to the debate on the performance of the region, which he admits does not rank highly.

"Our purpose is to improve the economic well-being and employment prospects of the region and that starts with education."

It is no longer good enough to sit back and do nothing, he says.

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