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Will smaller specialist universities drive place-based industrial strategy?

The role of smaller specialist universities in their local area is very different from that of an "anchor institution". Ahead of a presentation at the GuildHE conference, David Marlow looks at the case of Plymouth College of Art.
This article is more than 6 years old

David Marlow is the CEO of Third Life Economics

With the long-awaited industrial strategy white paper now imminent, GuildHE’s Annual Conference will discuss the potential for smaller, specialist universities to contribute constructively – and significantly – to formulation and delivery of place-based industrial strategy.

The conference will hear about a project, undertaken by Plymouth College of Art (PCA), that suggests four important propositions about universities and local industrial strategies. First, smaller specialist institutions can have a positive, transformational impact on city growth and development.

Second, the current thrust of ‘anchor institution’ policies and practice nationally and locally may marginalise or even negate these benefits. Third, both city and university leadership teams need to move beyond instrumental relationships that essentially reinforce large incumbent institutions on existing development trajectories. Fourth, some smaller, specialist HEIs may provide challenger and catalytic impetus for a radical reconfiguration of industrial strategy.

The view from Plymouth

Plymouth is the major UK city region South West of Bristol – with a primary catchment up to 500,000 population and £9bn GVA. It hosts the largest naval port in Western Europe, and has positioned itself as Britain’s ‘Ocean City’ and a capital of marine and blue-tech industries. Nevertheless, Plymouth has challenges of peripherality from UK and global metropolitan markets, detachment politically and culturally from much of its rural hinterlands, and lagging growth and skills performance.

PCA is a relatively small institution – with around 1,400 students, 225 staff, and a turnover of £16m. However, it makes striking contributions to the city’s education, culture, and to its profile and reputation nationally and globally. These are much greater than its formal quantitative size and HE reach.

It has opened an innovative 3-16 year-old school of creative arts with approaching 1,000 students in the most deprived ward of the city. It hosts FabLab, studios and gallery space in the city centre; runs a 500 student pre-degree and apprentices 16-18 campus; chairs the regional arts centre; is establishing a fashion and textile manufacturing CIC; and is one of the very few UK HEIs with a Social Enterprise Gold Mark. It has growing links with the city’s premier global businesses, including, for instance, providing arts and design capabilities for Princess Yachts – the world’s largest luxury yacht manufacturer which is headquartered in Plymouth.

PCA’s approach to ‘making’ and ‘creativity’ attracts and develops talent in the city’s growing creative industries cluster. This could be a key driver of Plymouth’s reinvention from ‘garrison town’ to modern global city. But only if the city can find a way to leverage and amplify PCA’s challenging approaches to city development and partnership working.

This is where anchor institution orthodoxy can work against PCA and the city as a whole.

Anchors away

The city has three universities. University of Plymouth (UoP), with around 20,000 students and £250m annual turnover, plays a major anchor role in the city. It is one of Plymouth’s largest institutions in employment, purchasing, real estate and investment terms. It is a key participant and sometimes funder in all city and sub-regional leadership teams. Marjon and PCA are small HEIs with specialist niche focuses. They tend to be marginal and hardly visible in major forums of leadership and governance of the city and the sub-region.

Our academic research and bilateral interviews with Plymouth’s city and sub-regional leadership support a provocative hypothesis. Anchor institution orthodoxy is too often about dialogues between large ‘clunky’ supply-side institutions that hold the ‘ship of state’s’ incumbent elites and development models in place. This prevents forward motion, especially of a radical game-changing character.

Moreover, almost all national policies – including potentially the industrial strategy expectations of HEIs – will reinforce this tendency. They are designed to make civic-university transactional equilibriums work better. This is primarily for the instrumental benefit of the institutions themselves, NOT to radically transform the places where these institutions are located.  

Inclusive approaches

We are philosophically and emotionally supportive of ‘civic university’ models advocated, amongst others, by John Goddard and some universities. However, national and local policies, including industrial strategy, need to measure and incentivise genuine HEI local leadership, partnership, and good citizenship – rather than provide post-hoc rationales for things universities would do anyway!

The PCA case is not unique. Of over 130 HEIs in England, around 40 have fewer than 5,000 students, and around 20 more are in the 5,000-10,000 student range. Many of these smaller HEIs provide strong focus in key areas of industrial strategy – creative industries, medicine, agriculture, business and industry itself. Most major cities with large anchor HEIs will have at least one or two further small HEIs – some with genuine international-quality capabilities and reputations.

Our preliminary recommendations suggest new ways need to be found for welcoming some of these place-based smaller HEIs into deliberations on future local industrial strategies. Their agility, focus, and distinctive perspectives can provide the sort of constructive but disruptive thinking that places will require in navigating the traumas of Brexit. Their delivery capabilities can help to ensure new industrial strategy aligns with inclusive growth.

There are a number of changes required to achieve this – national and local, from local government, large anchor institutions and from smaller HEIs themselves. At Plymouth College of Art, we’re hoping that the industrial strategy white paper provides for some of these opportunities.

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