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October 30, 2013

Will arrows hit their target?

Note: This post was written by a senior researcher at a centre for local and regional development studies at a Russell Group university, who asked not to be named.
-John Whitfield, comment and analysis editor,
Research Fortnight.

It’s interesting to note how the word ‘local’ was quietly dropped from the title of Andrew Witty’s review of ‘Universities and Growth’ released on 15 October.  When the review’s terms of reference (pdf) were published in May, they spoke of investigating ‘Universities in their Local Communities: Enabling Economic Growth’ and exploring “the range of ways that universities contribute to their local economies including as agents of research and innovation, as providers of skills, employers, purchasers of goods and services, and as facilitators bringing people together” and “how to create an integrated strategy between the local and national players”. 

Some time in the past six months any hint of a ‘place’ agenda in describing the role universities might play in driving growth seems to have fallen by the wayside. The final document has executed a volte-face, and is instead urging that funding should be structured “by technology/industry opportunity – not by postcode.”  It also tells us to “embrace the country’s density of population and institutions”music to the ears of institutions that happen to be in areas ‘thick’ with potential collaborators in the public and private sectors.

Likewise, research intensive universities in struggling parts of the country will be breathing sighs of relief at having escaped being forced, or even just expected, to help build their local economies in return for public funding.  They now have carte blanche to work with the ‘best’ collaborators wherever they might be. Of course, they tend to be in the most economically vibrant parts of the country. 

Herein lies the paradox: the places with the greatest need for investment in innovation will often lack the industrial capacity to assimilate and capitalise on new knowledge or applications stemming from their local universities. Therefore, those universities that generate research with industrial applications are more likely to seek commercialisation opportunities further afield with suitable national or international firms.  So the rich places get richer and the poor places get poorer.

Witty dismisses the notion of rebalancing the economy once popular within the coalition, saying that England is a “small country” and that some Regional Development Agencies showed “myopia” in the geographic focus of their activities. 

Perhaps this dismissal stems from the review’s extremely narrow definition of the role universities can play in contributing to economic growth. The underlying assumption seems to be that universities can only create (economic) value through science and technology. Bodies such as the European Commission and OECD take a very different line, giving increasing prominence to the importance of universities’ research strengths in the arts, humanities and social sciences – through for example, contributions to the creative industries, business processes, service (including public service) design and policy and practice in urban and regional development.

Furthermore, the OECD, in its influential reviews of higher education and territorial development in 47 regions across member countries, emphasises not only the contribution universities can make to the economies of their cities and regions, but also the roles they can play in social and cultural development. 

For its part, the European Commission, through its new approach to regional development known as smart specialisation (which will underpin structural funding post-2013) explicitly acknowledges universities’ role not only as generators of research and knowledge, but also in helping to build absorptive, leadership and collaborative capacity locally.  It states that:

“Smart specialisation ascribes a key role to universities as actors in their local innovation ecosystems, connecting global and local knowledge domains, and arguably gives them far more prominence than has been the case in previous structural funding programmes. There is a compelling case therefore for universities to play …. a much more broadly defined role than just generators of technological research and other ‘upstream’ activities.”

The Witty review, in contrast, presents us with a world in which the contribution of universities to economic development is linear and unidirectional – as reflected in the report’s big idea of “arrow” projects. This terminology (cf ‘Catapults’) presents a deeply oversimplified view of how economic development and innovation happens.  If we must rely on such simplistic terms, maybe ‘boomerangs’ would be more appropriate?  At least they usually come back to where they were launched.

The idea that pouring money into university research will release a plethora of inventions that the private sector can pick up and commercialise has been extensively critiqued in the academic literature.  A recent study (pdf) by the Intellectual Property Office reveals that publicly funded research in the UK yields relatively few patents: the highest ranked UK applicant for portfolios of patents relating to graphene (Manchester University) is in joint 163rd place in a league table dominated by Korean and Chinese corporations and universities.

UK universities are highly ranked and regarded worldwide for their research, but translating this ‘excellence’ into innovation for the benefit of the national economy seems beyond the grasp of policy makers. 

There appears to be resistance to any hint of telling universities what to do in return for public funding, for fear of curtailing their ability to seek and attain global ‘excellence’.  But is the pursuit of academic excellence harming the public good?

It is a shame that the Witty review did not investigate more deeply the growing links between universities and their Local Enterprise Partnerships, particularly in terms of designing plans for the allocation and use of EU structural and investment funds.  Unfortunately Witty offers no guidance on how to promote or incentivise these kinds of local partnerships, which continue to rely on mutual goodwill and trust between local leaders.  But will this be enough to ensure all parts of the UK can absorb and retain the potential benefits of universities in their areas?

For more on universities' role in their local economies and the Witty review, see John Goddard's article in the 30 October edition of Research Fortnight.

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