Closing the ‘town-gown’ gap

The new universities minister Greg Clark also has ‘cities’ in his remit, but cries of mission creep may be premature

July 24, 2014

It’s a common observation that capital cities are hugely dominant in many countries, with London a particularly rapacious example of a centre that gobbles up resources, talent and attention.

Yet “second tier” cities, as they are called by researchers at the European Institute for Urban Affairs at Liverpool John Moores University, matter a great deal to the health and wealth of the nation.

The EIUA published a report in 2012 asking: In an Age of Austerity, Why Invest beyond the Capitals? The crux of its argument is that continuing overinvestment in capitals and underinvestment elsewhere is unsustainable. It points out that the 124 “second tier” cities it identifies in Europe account for almost 80 per cent of the Continent’s urban population. And it argues that the devolution of power and funding and the economic benefits provided by universities – innovation, skills and human capital – are key ingredients for the prosperity of cities and countries.

Clark’s ‘cities’ brief recognises the day-to-day focus of many universities, whose efforts are often overshadowed by the attention-grabbing research elite

The work of the EIUA is cited in a government White Paper explaining the rationale of City Deals – an initiative offering additional funding for cities with compelling development plans, which has been overseen by newly appointed universities minister Greg Clark.

The White Paper is full of talk of cities “exploiting their edge in the knowledge economy”; and – in a change to the remit held by David Willetts – Clark has retained the “cities” brief in his new role. Some have expressed concern about mission creep, while others worry that the expanded brief is another sign of the reduction of universities into economic tools or “engines of growth”.

A more positive take would be that Clark’s brief recognises the day-to-day focus of many UK universities, whose efforts are often overshadowed by the attention-grabbing research elite. Lord Heseltine, who writes in our opinion pages this week, is one such supporter of Clark’s remit.

In our feature pages, meanwhile, we consider the wide-ranging impact on cities of university expansion and the growth of the high-tech and knowledge economy.

Take Cambridge, which despite its historic roots has over the past decade shared certain traits with a toddler – look away for a moment and it will have grown several inches. It’s a city that’s changing by the day – expanding certainly, but also in more subtle ways.

Consider the traditional “town-gown” divide. This used to be about researchers rubbing up against road sweepers. Today, as one don puts it, “the typical Cambridge resident whom I meet socially has a computer science degree, just like us. The only real difference is that he earns more money.”

This high-tech economy has lured AstraZeneca, Samsung and Microsoft to the city; and, with the combined student population of two universities, a city that has always been dominated by its ancient university can feel as though it has been swallowed by it.

The dynamics differ city by city: in Sunderland, for example, the university is the glue holding the region together following the loss of industry. However, the importance of universities to future prosperity is common throughout. Cities might not be the most glamorous addition to the universities and science brief but, if handled in the right way, it should be a valuable one.

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