The value of place-based university collaborations

Dr Peter O’Brien, Executive Director

Yorkshire Universities is something of a unique construct. Formed in 1987, this place-based university collaborative venture has endured despite the periodic upheaval in sub-national economic development governance and planning in England.

At the recent Northern Powerhouse Business Summit, part of the Great Exhibition of the North, the Northern Powerhouse Minister, Jake Berry, launched a new pan-regional governance entity – NP11 – a grouping of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) in the north of England, which will be headed initially by the Chair of the Leeds City Region LEP.

At the same event, Berry rightly praised the work of the N8 university group, while also encouraging greater cooperation between all universities in the north of England. N8 and the White Rose Consortium are two excellent models of place-based collaborations of research-intensive universities in the north of England, and both are adept at securing and leveraging research investment across a broad spectrum of areas. In developing and implementing YU’s new strategy, centred now on widening and deepening the role of all universities in Yorkshire in place-based development, including the industrial strategy, our work will align with and complement that of the N8 and White Rose. This makes sense as some YU members are also members of N8 and White Rose, and any form of duplication would be counter-productive. Effective communication and coordination between the three organisations ensures that the advocacy and influencing role of YU sits neatly alongside the ‘delivery focus’ of N8 and White Rose.

Jennifer Harrison’s article this month, published by Wonkhe, asks how the higher education sector should respond to and engage with the development of NP11 and the broader Northern Powerhouse initiative and begins to articulate the value of place-based university collaborations. There is an increasing requirement, according to Harrison, to “issue a rallying call to those involved in policy engagement across the Northern universities (a sort of Northern Power-ballad if you will) to ensure that our core messages and priorities are heard.”

Harrison’s article also cites Baroness Amos, Director of SOAS, who has suggested that universities should unify around a select number of key messages at the national level. Harrison advocates that universities should consider adopting a similar approach regionally. This proposal chimes with the new approach agreed by YU’s Board of Directors, which has been designed to embed collaborations between universities in Yorkshire, under the umbrella of YU, around the theme of place-based industrial strategy. YU’s approach recognises the diversity and distinctiveness of different economic geographies within Yorkshire, but also identifies that there are shared opportunities and challenges facing places and institutions, such as universities, in the region, which can be best addressed through co-ordination and partnership.

In seeking effective mechanisms through which to connect groups of universities in the north of England with emergent institutional arrangements, such as NP11, there is real merit in government, business and the public sector utilising existing place-based university collaborations, such as YU, N8 and White Rose. Clearly, the north of England faces major economic problems, but when it comes to university place-based collaborations the north is ahead of the game compared to many other places in the country.