Specialist universities can help to transform forgotten coastal, rural and inner city places

Small and specialist universities rose to the challenge of the pandemic. GuildHE's Dominic Trendall urges the government not to forget them in the spending review

Dom Trendall is the Public Affairs Manager at GuildHE

Rather like with buses, having previously been waiting so long for a spending review, it feels like two have come at once, with the last having been less than a year ago.

Also like buses, our rural and coastal communities have been allowed to lag behind in investment. This needs to change if we are to truly level up our economy. This requires flexible funding for those who will drive socioeconomic growth: the students, researchers and their institutions, across the country.

I am hoping that the government places “place” at the top of the agenda this week. As is discussed in GuildHE’s submission to the spending review, smaller and specialist institutions play key roles in boosting local economies and communities and this is crucial as we look to level up across the country.

Spread opportunity across the country

We all know that major national assets, including the large, research intensive universities, are disproportionately concentrated in London and the South East. Public investment and business investment is concentrated here which suggests that when you invest more public money, more private investment follows in a virtuous circle. This spending review is an opportunity to give our regional economies the kickstart that they need. One way of doing this would be to double the size of the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) to £500m and reform it by removing the lower allocations threshold to support regional business recovery and growth.

Smaller and specialist universities are agile and can maximise impact from smaller investments due to simpler infrastructure and closer-to-market research. Planned, annual, allocations would achieve much by providing certainty, not just for the universities, but also for the businesses and communities that they serve and with which they generate economic impact. To enable the positive effects from HEIF to be realised across the UK, adding a regional weighting should also be introduced.

At present funding rules and thresholds favour large investments and exclude highly targeted approaches. Such smaller investments can be transformative in remote and deprived areas, however. For example, Falmouth University is the first and only University to be headquartered in Cornwall, including the Isles of Scilly. Cornwall was classified as the only “Less Developed Region” in England for the EU structural funds in 2014-2020. Through its Launchpad project, so far, the first cohort of 20 participants has created five incorporated companies. Three of these businesses have gone on to secure over £1.1m of investment. Smaller institutions can and do deliver these benefits across the country and are too often overlooked.

Zoom in

There is also a need to zoom in on place based inequality; localised inequalities can often be masked by a broad geographic focus. There are other important lenses through which inequalities should be examined. Coastal, rural and inner-city places face specific challenges, for example. Small pockets of deprivation can be masked by the broader wealth of a region and do not always sit comfortably with people’s perceptions of different areas. The levelling up agenda must address the realities being faced by communities, not just large sub-national regions.

Smaller institutions know their communities well and will be a critical part of generating economic growth in those areas hit hardest by the pandemic as well as the most historically deprived. They should be supported through fairer innovation funding to channel national and international opportunities to their places and professions. As such, the distribution of QR funding should be reformed to provide targeted support for smaller research organisations with potential for growth to increase scientific excellence across the UK, to ensure that funding reaches institutions serving a broader range of communities.

There is so much to be gained from adopting a zoomed in approach to levelling up. The physical and cultural assets of places are often overlooked; there are areas across the country brimming with potential. We need to develop places where people want to live and work, otherwise big investments will just result in commuter communities. The government needs to work with and for communities to work out what is important to them and give them proper long term support. Smaller higher education providers are entwined in these communities, helping to meet local skills gaps and giving local people an opportunity to benefit from higher education. They are key partners in unleashing the potential of these places.

Spread the wealth

Higher education institutions rose to the challenge of the pandemic brilliantly, moving classes online and maintaining an excellent standard of teaching in the most trying of circumstances. Smaller and specialist institutions should be particularly commended for this, acting fast to make sweeping changes without the economies of scale enjoyed by larger institutions. Additionally, many GuildHE members are situated in rural and coastal areas where the national infrastructure is not yet sufficient to provide stable access to a digital university experience for all students.

Institutions have taken significant steps in directly addressing digital poverty and disadvantage, but clearly there are structural and infrastructure issues that need to be addressed at the national level as a matter of priority. This is a crucial step if we are to properly address the fall in part-time higher education and enable real access to life-long learning for those across the country. The government must introduce capital funding for digital technology innovation to teach the skills of tomorrow, including investment in national broadband connectivity.

The more that public investment can reach communities, the better. This is why we need a place based approach that ensures that large parts of our country do not slip between the cracks, as we look to build back better.

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