Reflections on universities and place – more about navigating than anchoring?

Guest blog by David Marlow, Managing Director, Third Life Economics 

Almost every week in 2017 Universities (HEIs) have found themselves attacked by the populist press, and perhaps more worryingly from some opinion-formers and decision-makers of UK public policy. The criticisms are of unaccountable ‘remainer’ institutions, led by ‘fat cat’ vice chancellors, full of privileged ‘experts’. They masquerade as ‘charities’ with all sorts of local tax reliefs (council tax and business rates), whilst acting as rapacious real estate developers. Their students cause major disruption to local communities, housing and labour markets whilst becoming trapped with levels of student debt that will either blight their family life for decades, or never be repaid. 

Concurrently, Government’s new industrial strategy has major expectations of HEIs as deliverers of national repositioning during and post-Brexit. Local leadership teams (whether Combined Authority, Local Government or Local Enterprise Partnership)  recognise universities’ central roles in the five industrial strategy pillars of ideas (innovation), people (skills), infrastructure, business environment, and place-making. Indeed, the importance of universities as ‘anchor institutions’ in local growth and development is now a pervasive assumption of much thinking and considerable elements of the practice of city strategy and leadership. 

How can universities and local leadership teams set about addressing these two diametrically-opposed narratives? 

Since 2015, I have been privileged to work on two significant projects that seeks to throw some light on these issues. In 2015-16, as Executive Commissioner of the Chancellor’s Commission of University of Warwick (UoW), we explored how UoW might reset its relationships with and to Coventry, Warwickshire and the Midlands to increase positive impact in the second fifty years of its history (UoW was established in 1965). During 2017 I have worked with Plymouth College of Art (PCA) on the roles of smaller specialist HEIs in their towns and cities’ future success. Self-evidently these are two very different types of university in two different cities and regions – but collectively the projects provide powerful insights into answering the question posed above. 

The UoW Chancellor’s Commission proposed a framework for university anchor institutions’ relationship to place with three key dimensions – leadership, partnership, and citizenship. Universities need to be proactive members of relevant local leadership teams – clearly articulating their regional and local priorities, and willing to take responsibility for specific components of them. Their local interventions should be undertaken in genuine partnership with local role players and beneficiaries, rather than being driven solely by academic requirements. And they need to be a consistently ‘good citizen’ in the way they engage with those communities where they have the most impact, and manage any negative externalities (e.g. housing, congestion, anti-social behaviour) effectively. 

The PCA project takes a very different and provocative starting point. The whole metaphor of an ‘anchor’ institution too often suggests a large, heavy object, holding the ship (of state) in place. Are the largest university anchor institutions inherently bureaucratic super tankers, part of incumbent local elites, and therefore unlikely to lead and deliver radical change? The project considers the positive contributions small challenger institutions like PCA can have in cities and communities. These are important and relevant – with over 60 HEIs with enrolments under 10,000 students located in every region and nation of the UK. 

Putting these two projects together has resulted in the formulation of a matrix that might be useful in thinking about university-place relations as we move through both the national uncertainties of Brexit, and the more granular challenges of local industrial strategy. 

Cities and sub-regions need to make the most of their large anchor institutions for obvious reasons. But they should also understand,  welcome and involve what we have termed ‘loosener’ institutions – smaller, sometimes disruptive, challengers. These can be equally  passionate about and committed to place – but more agile and flexible in experimenting and demonstrating new approaches. 

Cities and sub-regions need to be able to engage HEIs in delivering business-as-usual evolution of infrastructure, services and ‘offers’. However, in this era as much as any, they must also enable radical transformation. 

The PCA provocation includes the hypothesis that most national and local interventions tend to gravitate towards the bottom left-hand quadrant of the matrix – the hugely important task of increasing anchor institution collaboration and making it more effective. Certainly, if one re-reads the UoW Chancellor’s Commission report, all the ‘easier’ suggestions are in that quadrant.   

Arguably, Government’s Industrial Strategy tends towards a similar approach. Expectations of universities are high – but predominantly within existing business models and trends. Fundamental reforms of HEIs as institutions or of place-leadership are not proposed. More practically, programmes like Local Growth Academy (to which Regeneris is a major contributor) or Leading Places emphasise improving anchor institution mutual understanding and increasing project activity – rather than majoring on radical reforms of the way places do business. 

One should not underestimate the importance of the bottom-left quadrant, and how much scope there is for improved results through activity in that quadrant. In one sense, the UoW Chancellor’s Commission illustrated a new type of approach to determining future priorities, maximising and measuring  impact which will be relevant and adaptable in most regional and local geographies.  

However, many places will require transformation to successfully navigate the coming period. They may need new types of institutions in leadership and delivery roles. Large university anchors themselves will not be able to ride out the current turmoil without serious reflection on their local purposes, priorities, and the business models through which they deliver them. This is all work in the other three quadrants of the matrix. 

There are positive opportunities – new local leadership teams, some headed by metro-mayors; possible further devolution; local industrial strategy exercises; taking forward the science and innovation audits; future or smart cities initiatives amongst others. If we want the positive narrative about universities to prevail over the opening paragraph of this piece, I suspect we need to see increased attention in all four quadrants of the matrix.  

But this framework is still formative and work-in-progress. What do you think?  

Regeneris and David Marlow work together on economic development strategy matters and have worked with many universities and their partners around the country. To find out more about how we can help you demonstrate and maximise your institution’s socio-economic contribution, or think through the implications of the industrial strategy, please contact Tim Fanning or David Marlow.

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