UK universities are developing strong regional partnerships and could export this expertise, says Deian Hopkin
Latin America is the flavour of the month, to judge by the latest series of Auf Wiedersehen Pet , which is set in Cuba, the continuing popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club and the craze for salsa (the dance, not the dish). It is not all one way, of course. There are things about us that interest Latin America, too. This month, the World Bank Institute brought to London a delegation of municipal and regional leaders from Mexico and Argentina and all points in between. While studying our approaches to urban development, they became fascinated by the way universities are being cast as serious players in regional development.
Education, like wealth, is unevenly distributed in Latin America. The Inter-American Development Bank has described the extent to which resources for higher education are largely concentrated in the wealthiest regions, and universities are regarded as part of the private sector, exclusively engaged in research and teaching. Little is expected of them in regional or urban planning. This was true of the UK until comparatively recently.
It has taken several decades to introduce the kind of "Third Mission" of regional engagement that led, in Sweden, to the creation of Umea University in the 1950s or, in the 1960s, the "entrepreneurial" University of Twente in the Netherlands.
Of course, individual universities have played an important part in UK regions through the creation of science parks, capital investment in property and boosting local employment. Programmes such as the knowledge-transfer partnerships have been a conspicuous success. But this has been unevenly distributed across the country, and formal strategic partnerships have been slow to develop. Universities tended to focus more on their national and international reputation and position, often overlooking the vital relevance of regional and local activity. This is changing rapidly. The considerable investment recently put at the disposal of the new Manchester University by the area's regional development agency suggests that it regards mergers as good for the regional economy.
London has been a long-term anomaly, seemingly reluctant to recognise the value and importance of universities as partners in economic and community development. Having 32 boroughs has not helped. The advent of the London Development Agency, the London Assembly and the mayor has greatly improved matters. But it is also the case that the London Higher consortium is coordinating its 42 members more effectively.
Regeneration takes a long time and requires positive intervention, careful planning and strong partnerships, not to mention consistent and enduring investment. This is why universities, with their demonstrable longevity, are so important as partners. They need to develop their own capacities, but very often the seeds for such development already exist within academic departments and research units. The traditional boundaries between theory and practice, however, need to be more clearly overcome. After all, regeneration is also concerned with measurable deliverables and outcomes on the ground, with a strong emphasis on up-to-date practitioner experience.
Universities, in other words, need to harness the energies of those working outside the academy.
Over the next few years, there will be a real opportunity to strengthen the relationship between universities and their regions. The role given to the regional development authorities in the evaluation of bids for the new Higher Education Innovation Fund is something of a milestone. But we should not make the mistake of following the Office of Science and Technology model of research concentration. It is crucial that all regions benefit in equal measure and that all universities are funded so that they can make an appropriate contribution to their communities.
As we develop our regional strategies and capabilities, we can also share this with a wider world, and where better than Latin America? This is often an opportunity to follow in the wake of the intrepid railway builders of the 19th century who developed the infrastructures of Argentina and Chile.
The expertise and experience of UK universities in urban planning and regional economic development would be prized in cities such as Lima or in provinces such as Bahia or Cear in Brazil. That was the clear message of our Latin American colleagues. Support for regeneration may not be quite as melodic an export as the sons of Ibrahim Ferrer but it may be just as sustainable in the long term.
Deian Hopkin is vice-chancellor of London South Bank University.