Universities can be at the centre of a connected knowledge economy

A flourishing and equitable economy needs universities to think globally and nationally, and engage locally, argue Sarah Chaytor and Steve Caddick.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us the danger of hidden threats that become uncontrolled outbreaks.

The 2070 Commission inquiry into city and regional inequalities in the UK, chaired by Lord Kerslake, has highlighted widening disparities in health, education, wealth, employment, access to opportunity, and environmental equality between localities – all being exacerbated by the impacts of the pandemic.

If left untreated and unresolved these inequalities will impede aspirations to build a better long-term future for the UK.

In the latest report in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Go Big, Go Local, the 2070 Commission recommends the implementation of a £375bn 25-year New Deal strategy for a “just recovery”, intended to offset the annual £4bn gap in research and development investment, and the annual £20bn cost of poor local connectivity.

The report reminds us that even if the UK is able to find the billions necessary to implement the recommendations and act at pace, this will not deliver quick fixes. Rather, we need to invest for the long term in order to create a diverse, resilient and fair economy and society.

Ripples of research impact

The Commission rightly identifies the continued importance of university R&D for the future prosperity of the UK. Yet the potential role of universities may be slightly understated.

We need to recognise that the benefits of research are felt not just in the geographical location where they are carried out, but all over the country. For example, the graphene hub led by the University of Manchester is applying advanced materials research in partnership with industry partners and universities across the UK for national benefit. The Rosalind Franklin Institute’s collaborative national network has already led to the rapid development of engineered nanobodies that are highly effective at neutralising the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The long term approach needed to tackle regional inequalities will necessarily rely on institutions that can plan for the very long term. Despite the obvious challenges they are currently facing, universities are some of the most enduring institutions in the UK, able to take a view over years and decades. So we might expect universities to play an even more important and prominent future role – not simply in research, culture and education – but in the very fabric of our economy and society.

Go Big, Go Local highlights the strength of the UK research ecosystem and suggests further support for existing and future centres of excellence. The importance of such R&D clusters is clear in terms of strengthening research, driving innovation, and generating powerful economic and social impacts.

But equally important is ensuring that these centres become truly connected: with each other and with other universities across the sector, with relevant industry sectors and with new partners where connections may be less immediately obvious.

Examples such as the development of the Tay Cities Biomedical Cluster – with £25 million from the Scottish government to expand the Dundee life sciences centre of excellence – and the UK Catalysis Hub – created from the Cardiff Catalysis Institute’s strategic alliances with universities in England and Northern Ireland – demonstrate the value of forging connections and networks beyond clusters themselves.

The UK can take advantage of its small size to create a seamless connected knowledge and innovation ecosystem connecting all parts of the UK, with benefits for all. Such cross-regional collaboration can deliver powerful local and national benefits, amplifying the insights of research and increasing societal impact.

So the development of new centres of excellence should consider how to integrate networks and collaborations which deliver both regional and national benefits. They should harness existing capabilities from across the UK university sector and align them to local and national needs to ensure the widest possible benefit for all places across the UK. This may require research funders to think carefully about how they can stimulate collaboration between universities with complementary strengths and shared goals, within and across regions.

Building blocks for a knowledge economy

Delivering a connected knowledge economy will also require us to foster innovation in the next generation of entrepreneurs and researchers, with much greater mobility between academia and other sectors. One option might be to introduce structured research and innovation secondments for early career researchers and entrepreneurs, as is already common in doctoral training, to enable them to undertake projects in multiple locations, with other universities, industrial partners, SMEs, government, public and third sector organisations.

We must also consider how universities are engaged with further education and learning for life, in the context of the UK’s rapidly evolving skills needs and of differing regional priorities. The impact of Covid on education has been profound and has dramatically accelerated the use of virtual learning tools. Given the pandemic may last for some years, it is likely that many of the changes will have lasting benefit to diversification of the educational experience.

This could help reach groups for whom a historic campus-focused education is simply not practical, including through closer working with local FE providers. It may also help develop a truly lifelong education and skills pathway for all – helping re-skill people as their careers evolve and to diversify further those that benefit from the UKs education system.

This all points to a much greater focus on partnerships and networks and a greater fluidity in the way universities operate. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how universities can act in partnership with local organisations and communities to address the impacts of the crisis.

Beyond that, the new Civic Universities Network highlights the importance of universities as local “anchor institutions” and of working with local actors, exemplified in collaborative initiatives such as the Newcastle Science City or the Universities for Nottingham Civic Agreement to address regional priorities.

And in the same way as regional centres of excellence generate national benefits, research carried out in one place can illuminate challenges or underpin local policymaking elsewhere – such as the network of Marmot Cities in England, which is developing evidence-based approaches based on academic research to tackle social inequalities in health in different local contexts, or the expansion of the work to improve the life chances of children from the Born in Bradford project to Tower Hamlets through the Act Early City Collaboratory.

Covid has also shown us the invaluable role of academic expertise in informing public policy as well as highlighting some of the tensions that exist between academia and government. The Research England-funded CAPE project is one initiative which is attempting to improve mechanisms for academic-policy engagement in different geographical and policy contexts.

This matters: effective use of university expertise in tackling public policy priorities helps to maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of public investment. This also means ensuring that local- and well as national, decision-making is supported through high-quality knowledge and expertise – particularly if we are to effectively tackle regional inequalities.

Universities need to work harder with local policy stakeholders to develop sustainable knowledge networks which can consider how best to inform policy development and apply new research to local and regional policy priorities.

Universities have much to offer, but this is an agenda we need to implement now. In the past we have been characterised as – and criticised for being – slow, bureaucratic and highly competitive. Covid shows that universities can act quickly, decisively, collaboratively and for the greater good of the citizens of the UK. Let’s build on that for a fairer society and economy.

 

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