Much more should be done to foster relationships between institutions and local organisations, says Nick Barnes
Universities and colleges are important players in the local as well as the national economy. They are a crucial source of regional regeneration, channelling massive resources through local economies and offering employment as well as education to the community.
Given this pivotal role, the extent to which they work in partnership with other local organisations should be critical to the success of their mission. Unfortunately, most significant research funding sources, such as the research councils and the Wellcome Trust, favour elite institutions, arguably at the expense of the majority.
The research assessment exercise can create a vicious circle in which funding allocations become ever more concentrated in those institutions that are already successful. Local partnerships can help less fortunate institutions break out of this circle. Much more can, and perhaps should, be done to foster and harness local partnerships working for mutual benefit. This is especially true of collaboration with the voluntary and local authority sectors, which have very patchy links with academia.
Volunteers can bring enthusiasm and expertise to projects. In return, universities can provide practical support and access to a range of facilities. There are similar mutual benefits in collaborating with local government.
Partnerships can unlock value retained in single organisations. There is a need for more creativity in the ways in which institutions interact with other local organisations to harness mutually advantageous opportunities. These might include sharing information or other assets and allowing locally relevant knowledge and expertise to feed into teaching and research.
Cash-strapped universities can also access new funding or in-kind support via partnerships. By bringing new funds into the local economy and improving the efficiency of existing resource flows, universities can become even more powerful drivers in sustainable economic development. Partnership projects can play a key role within this economic activity by helping to access external funds and, perhaps more important, by working together to ensure more efficient use of resources in partner organisations.
The benefits for participants in local partnership projects are many: students, volunteers and staff can gain new skills and knowledge; academics can benefit personally and professionally; and there are potential spin-offs for local communities. Partnerships can also contribute to sustainable management in institutions and external organisations by promoting the effective use of human resources, information and finance.
Policy-makers need to recognise and encourage diversity in collaborative working and to promote local partnerships that are demonstrably of mutual benefit. Funding support for such projects offers excellent value for money because the level of activity and practical outcomes can far exceed those that might ordinarily result from projects delivered by single organisations. Modest financial investment can produce valuable returns, which demonstrates the need for further support for local partnerships. Seed grants might be one way to support such projects.
Academics do not have to wait for policy-makers to help them develop advantageous links with local organisations. University College Northampton has been working with a number of local partners on several resource-efficiency and waste-minimisation projects. Partners include local small businesses and local authorities. These projects have generated significant benefits for all concerned, including research outputs for the college. Estimates suggest they have already produced in excess of Pounds 500,000 worth of environment-enhancing activity. This level of project resourcing is not available to most organisations through existing funding routes. The projects have also spawned numerous academic publications and conference presentations.
In another project, volunteers helped collect information about the status of wildlife habitats in the town. Sources of funding for the employment of contract researchers for this type of project are very limited, and without voluntary input the project would probably not have been possible.
Similar opportunities abound and the scope for mutual gain and local economic benefit is enormous. Partnerships offer significant opportunities for adding value, and a whole range of such projects are within the grasp of all colleges and universities. But they are not only about economic prosperity. They are about establishing, developing and celebrating meaningful and mutually rewarding relationships, which should benefit all parties as well as the wider community.
Nick Barnes is research fellow at the Open University's Centre for Complexity and Change. He has collaborated with University College Northampton on several local partnership projects. A workshop to explore ideas and share experiences is planned. Details: firstname.lastname@example.org.