In this guest blog, Kevin Richardson, from the Local Academy, makes the case why universities should take an active role in developing and implementing local industrial strategies.
Universities can be forgiven for taking a glass half-empty stance when supporting the development of Local Industrial Strategies (LISs). However, embracing a wider and longer-term perspective may prove the better option.
Universities have a lot on their plates to occupy their time. The Research and Teaching Excellence, and Knowledge Exchange Frameworks demand a significant volume of performance management. Compiling and submitting the necessary paperwork to register with the Office for Students has also consumed efforts. Throw the Augar Review and competition for students into the mix, and no wonder universities are focused on addressing ‘core HE’ priorities.
So why should universities divert their attention towards LISs? Especially as this is the third time since 2012 that government has mandated local institutions in England to prepare new economic strategies. So much for adopting a long-term perspective! Not that much money appears attached directly to LISs, only vague promises about a new national funding mechanism in which little practical progress seems to have taken place. And certainly no firm commitments to replace the Local Growth Fund, which has been quietly been put out to pasture at the end of the minimum five-year period advocated in Lord Heseltine’s ‘No Stone Unturned’ report. The European Structural and Investment Funds, smaller in total, but much more important to those places ‘left behind’, are running out of resources, and may end sooner than planned if the UK ends up in a No Deal Brexit scenario.
Universities are key actors in delivering the national UK Industrial Strategy. Although a spatially-blind document, the current Industrial Strategy nevertheless offers a much clearer focus on place than previous national innovation strategies. And the new investment in science and research is welcome. A stronger strategic partnership with BEIS offers new opportunities for universities but, at the local level, apart from BEIS and MHCLG, government departments are pre-occupied with other matters.
In the current period of political, social and economic uncertainty, it is understandable why some local partners, including universities, may choose to adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach when considering their specific individual and collective contributions towards LISs, especially if change continues, and new national policies emerge in 2019.
But adopting a more proactive approach, centered on widening and deepening their engagement with industrial policy and strategy, may prove to be the more astute choice for universities in the long-run. Part two of this blog illustrates why a glass half-full approach, and increased involvement in emergent LISs, may be where the smart money is likely to be found.