Although universities are in an excellent position to drive economic growth in their regions, too few institutions see it as a priority, according to a thinktank.
The Tony Rich Lecture and Debate, held at the University of London by the Association of Heads of University Administration on 26 April, heard that just 4 per cent of institutions consider their locality to be a mission priority, with almost a third not seeing any geographical area as part of their mission.
The statistics were presented by Richard Muir, associate director for public services at the Institute for Public Policy Research, who said that universities' roles in their regions were going to be vital over the next few years.
"We have a very skewed economy," he said. "This regional imbalance and this inequality will be exacerbated by the public spending cuts that are taking place."
Dr Muir added that a £1 million output by a university generated a further £1.38 million for the wider economy.
He also said that investment in universities is recommended by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development as a more effective method of attracting direct foreign investment than financial incentives such as tax breaks.
John Hogan, registrar at Newcastle University, said that his institution went "hand in glove" with the local city, and that more institutions should consider themselves a "univer-city".
Dr Hogan argued that a London-centric view of the economic benefits of universities meant that the importance of institutions to their regions could be underestimated.
Taking the example of Imperial College London, he said: "Imperial is a fantastic institution, but if it closed, would London notice? Probably not.
"But if Newcastle closed, or Northumbria, Durham, Teesside or Sunderland [universities] closed, it would be a catastrophe for the local and the bigger region, because there's not a lot else going on in the North East."
He added: "The relative importance of these universities is so much more important than some of the outstanding institutions you might find in London."
Meanwhile, David Allen, registrar of the University of Exeter, said that for a time universities had lost touch with their communities, but recently they had started to re-engage in "powerful and beneficial ways".
The event was named for Tony Rich, currently registrar at the University of Bristol, who is suffering from cancer. A fellow registrar, Jonathan Nicholls of the University of Cambridge, has been raising money for the University of Bristol’s cancer research fund in his name, and recently ran the London Marathon. Anyone wishing to donate can still do so at: http://www.justgiving.com/Jonathan-Nicholls1
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