In 1914, as the First World War raged across Europe, the University of Sheffield set up a University Scientific Advisory Committee.
Local businesses were struggling to survive and adapt to disrupted supply chains and to meet the demands of the war effort. The university, which already had strong links between members of staff and industry, used the new committee to scale up this advice and offer it as a formal service. Businesses across and beyond Yorkshire sought help from a university for the first time. As John Taylor notes in his book The Impact of the First World War on British Universities, this response to the crisis went far beyond the war itself, breaking down barriers between universities and businesses and helping to drive recovery efforts.
Over 100 years later, universities and their communities responded to the Covid-19 pandemic almost immediately. Medical research, sharing equipment and staff, and community wellbeing efforts formed the foundation of tackling the biggest disruption to public life in peacetime.
But the economic aftershock of Covid-19 has hit communities hard. This makes the levelling up agenda more challenging but even more vital. As we look to rebuild the economy and address long-standing structural issues facing our society – from health inequalities to the climate emergency – university partnerships need to be at the forefront of the response.
University partnerships with employers, colleges, the NHS, and the cultural and voluntary sectors can lead to long-lasting changes beyond the immediate response to Covid-19. In research conducted for Universities UK, I have looked at the potential impact of university partnerships over the next five years. The results are forecasts, and the limitations of the data used to calculate these needs to be borne in mind. But the opportunities, if universities are supported in their efforts, are tremendously exciting.
By May 2026, more than 191,000 nurses, 84,000 medical specialists and 188,000 teachers will graduate from UK universities.
Universities will attract over £2.5 billion of funding for local regeneration projects with significant economic and social impact in local places across the UK.
UK universities will be commissioned to provide over £11.6 billion of support and services to small enterprises, businesses and not-for-profits over the next five years. This includes specialist advice, access to the latest facilities and equipment to develop innovative products, and conducting bespoke research projects.
In Northern Ireland, universities will deliver the equivalent of 410 years of professional development training and education courses to businesses and charities in the next five years. Scottish universities will provide 3,490 years of training by May 2026, and Welsh universities will deliver the equivalent of nearly 4,800 years of upskilling in the next five years. In England, universities will provide the equivalent of 54,936 years of training by May 2026, and 10,580 years’ worth in the next year alone.
However, maximising the contribution of universities to the recovery means taking action. Universities, central and local government, and UKRI all have roles to play.
Open to all
Universities should make themselves available for new partnerships and seek novel ways of engaging with potential partners. Examples include secondments or jointly-funded positions that help to build new career pathways between sectors. Or opening up underused buildings for communities and small businesses.
Impact is also felt in other ways: for example, universities should look for opportunities to focus even more of their spending within the local economy. Their considerable expenditure on staff has significant local benefits, and maximising local procurement can have similar impact.
Government should support university collaborations with dedicated funding, and encourage these in programmes such as the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) and Levelling Up Fund. Support from the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) programme has underpinned many job creation and regeneration projects, and will end in 2023.
Although the government has promised that funding for UKSPF will eventually at least match ESIF, greater clarity on the role that universities will play in the management and implementation of the fund is needed before the full programme launches next year.
Local and Combined Authorities should bring universities into economic and social planning. Partnering on, for example, enterprise incubators and start-up support can boost local job creation, and working together on innovation programmes increases the competitiveness of small businesses.
And UKRI should take the lead in efforts to improve and maintain funding to rebalance regional research and innovation funding. As research from Nesta has demonstrated, historic underfunding in some regions has led to inequalities in economic performance across the UK, threatening the levelling up agenda. The forthcoming place-based research and development strategy is a good place to start addressing this, alongside strengthening initiatives such as the Strength in Places Fund.
The First World War marked a shift in understanding: that universities can boost economic competitiveness and benefit wider society. Today, businesses and communities in towns and cities in all parts of the UK have access to the equivalent of Sheffield’s University Scientific Advisory Committee.
Universities are open for business. And just as a century ago, when universities began to take a much more active and open role within society and the economy, with a renewed commitment today from universities to collaboration with new and existing partners, the recovery from the pandemic can be faster and stronger.