Universities are regional leaders

Devolution will affect all of us. The Government is handing unprecedented powers to cities and regions. This will look and feel different in different places. What makes sense for the cities of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ will not make sense for those in the ‘Midlands Engine’ or in the West of England, or in urban coastal areas or in London (still the most advanced case of city devolution in England).

The policy narrative is that diversity isn’t just inevitable, it is desirable. But for this to work, our ideas of leadership must evolve. Leaders are not only found in the traditional institutions of local, urban or regional government. The challenge is to bring leaders from other institutions – invested in the success of their city and region – into a new kind of government.

One such institution is the local university.

Universities play multiple roles in the success of their cities and regions. They are central to thriving skills, research and innovation ecosystems. They provide people with the skills business, industry and the public sector need. They carry out new research and ensure the findings have impact – sometimes bringing new or improved products to market, sometimes bringing new understanding to social problems that make it clear what changes are needed to improve the quality of life. 

They partner with businesses and other organisations to support innovation, bringing new solutions to complex problems. In doing these things, they improve productivity and secure sustainable growth and, perhaps most importantly, they create opportunities for people – providing first, second and third chances. And people benefit more broadly from the role universities play in creating healthy communities. Not just through training health professionals and carrying out research – although this is essential – but also by partnering with a host of sports and arts organisations to create a vibrant culture in their town or city. 

Over the course of this year, we will shine a spotlight on some of the ways in which universities contribute to their cities and regions – and to make the case that, because of this, they must be central to the process of agreeing and implementing devolution strategies. This may involve a change of behaviour by universities too.

We are working in very difficult times with major challenges and limited resources. Universities are involved in complex webs of competition and collaboration with other institutions locally, nationally and internationally. Perhaps the balance needs to tip a bit more towards collaboration – sharing challenges and finding solutions together. 

University Alliance institutions are making a commitment to put city and regional development at the heart of our strategies and decisions. We recognise that the benefits to be gained – and shared– from devolution and regional responsibility are enormous. We need to understand and debate this opportunity, and we welcome you to get involved in our work.

We will be exploring these issues through a series of reports and events in the coming months.

And in partnership with Wonkhe, University Alliance, alongside experts and wonks with a range of different perspectives, will be leading the debate here on the role of universities as leaders in their cities and regions. We hope people will interact here and on Twitter – look out for the #UACities hashtag.

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