Getting on with the neighbours

May 16, 1997

How to shape HE: John Goddard highlights key issues for the new Government

There is hardly any aspect of the public policy debate about the future shape of higher education that does not have a regional dimension - and in some contestable way. In terms of engagement with users and beneficiaries of research, what should be the balance between regional, national and international links? How far should collaboration focus on neighbouring academic institutions and is it a way of doing more with less through cost-sharing and/or rationalisation? In shaping teaching programmes, what weight should be attached to regional as distinct from national labour market need, to the needs of local small and medium-sized enterprises as distinct from corporate recruiters; to the preferences of 18-year-olds arriving through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service or to fulfilling a regional lifelong learning agenda?

In relation to issues of access and participation there is the challenge of marked inter-regional variations in the pattern of supply and demand for higher education which leads to significant inter-regional flows of students - principally of those who can afford to live away from home. This raises the question of the public and private costs and benefits of such mobility and the role of higher education as a way out of lagging regions (which have a low demand for higher-level skills) for locally-recruited students.

Finally, there is the potential role of telematics in supporting distance learning; this not only challenges the case for a university in every town but the very nature of universities as place-based institutions.

These are not simply questions for individual institutions because single institutional responses to them will not necessarily add up to a pattern of provision that meets national needs. While the national higher education system struggles to come to terms with the regional dimension, there is far less uncertainty among policy-makers directly concerned with economic and social development about the role of higher education.

Here the debate has moved on from the direct local job generation effects of universities and high technology spin-offs to a deeper concern to mobilise higher education in the creation of "learning regions" - through teaching, research and strengthening regional institutional capacity, (for example, through university partnerships) and contribution to strategic analyses of economic, social and technological threats and opportunities. Unlike higher education which is locked into a national regime of regulation, economic development agencies must respond to the corporate logic of globalisation and localisation. Having said this, the regional economic development scene, particularly in England, is highly fragmented and universities are confronted with a plethora of short-term initiatives from a multiplicity of agencies seeking their engagement.

So not only is there an absence of regional policy within higher education but also an incoherent regional policy framework outside. The net effect is a pattern of engagement with regions which, particularly in the case of pre-1992 universities, is not mainstreamed or embedded into teaching or research.

A team of academics and managers in Newcastle University is attempting to develop a policy framework for the Department for Education and Employment which identifies the various stakeholders - universities themselves, employers, students and development agencies. The chief gap in this framework is the policy lacuna within higher education itself. Should regional engagement be on the agenda for all universities, in all parts of the country? Or is this a matter primarily for the post-1992 institutions in inner-city areas or lagging regions?

The ability of individual institutions to contribute to regional development is influenced by their history and geography. It is particularly problematic for the Robbins universities which were established in county towns outside the mainstream of urban industrial life and which depend on a national system of student placement, recruitment and research engagement. There are also variations in sources of funding to support a university's engagement with the region, particularly from Europe; in the strength of regional institutional arrangements such as training and enterprise councils and development agencies working together and, last but not least, the degree of complementarity of neighbouring institutions.

The evolution of British higher education has followed other areas of public policy towards being shaped almost entirely by national considerations. The latest phase with its emphasis on the market and national standards to produce a hierarchy of universities, pays no attention to the economic and social development needs of different parts of the country.

From a regional perspective we would not start from here. Pronounced regional variations in the pattern of higher education provision and development needs, points to the need for a more regionally sensitised system. However, this requires changes both inside and outside of higher education. Without recourse to formal regional planning of provision - which would challenge well-entrenched principles of institutional autonomy - it would be possible to introduce a regional dimension using a system of sticks and carrots. It would be a mistake for the costs of such a system to be borne entirely by the higher education vote. For example, it would be possible to modify assessment criteria in teaching and research to reward regional engagement in fields where this is relevant. Outside of higher education, initiatives like the Department for Education and Employment's new regional development fund could be expanded and funding provided over a longer period than currently proposed. The skills and competencies of university managers to engage in the regional development system could be enhanced through targeted human resource development programmes.

Greater emphasis on regionalism will be another nail in the coffin of a system of institutional management based around a single funder, annual allocations, recruitment of 18-year-olds and a producer-led culture in terms of teaching and research.

John Goddard is dean of the faculty of law, environment, and social sciences at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

An extended summary of the DFEE report can be found at

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