Universities and Local Industrial Strategies ‘Part two: harnessing the expertise of universities’

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.

Part one of this blog set out a number of reasons why universities could be forgiven for taking a sceptical approach to supporting the development of Local Industrial Strategies (LISs). However, the blog also argued that adopting a longer-term perspective may prove to be the best option.

The Industrial Strategy Prospectus, published in October last year, gives a number of clues as to the new and different approaches that the government expects a local area to adopt when developing a LIS.

The need for all new LISs to be founded on stronger evidence is both an explicit requirement of the Prospectus and an implicit critique of some of the assertions and claims made in previous local strategies.  Universities are well-placed to provide that enhanced authoritative evidence base, not solely on the basis of a relatively narrow set of data linked to traditional factors of production, but also targeting a broader array of intelligence that addresses wider societal opportunities and challenges. The Prospectus specifically suggests that a LIS should ‘harness the expertise of universities (and others) to develop a granular understanding.’ Specifically, universities are often acutely-aware of the conditions of the places in which they are located, and of the impacts that their business activity and research have on local communities and economies. Such understanding is needed if every LIS can set out, as required, the spatial implications of both national and local strategies on local levels of productivity.

The Prospectus calls for more consultation with local businesses. Universities are well-placed to coordinate these efforts by encouraging wider civic engagement with businesses with whom they contract and otherwise collaborate. Supporting those firms to have their longer-term developmental needs set out in a LIS can only lead to more sustainable benefits.

The need to link LISs to the national Industrial Strategy is both obvious and explicit in the Prospectus. This suggests a stronger desire from government for LISs to have a structurally different purpose and form than strategies have had in the past. The grand challenges of; Artificial Intelligence and data; ageing society; clean growth; and the future of mobility are all more closely aligned to the research strengths of universities than narrower previous priorities, which were sometimes more focused on the basic factors of production.

Universities are acutely aware of the fuzzy nature of economic geographies. The call within the Prospectus for LEPs to identify opportunities for more collaboration across artificial administrative boundaries should be received positively by universities.

The need for stronger evaluation frameworks is another feature encouraged by the Prospectus. Local stakeholders are expected to engage with external consultants and/or utilise local academic research teams.

Funding to support the development of each LIS will be dependent upon government support. But who knows what new investments will be needed as we near the 29th March. The government may well want to turn to each local area and LIS if it needs a ready basis for allocating more immediate investment, especially in those places ‘left behind’.

Each university, as an autonomous institution, will make its own decision on whether, and to what extent, it is willing and able to contribute towards the development of a LIS in its local area. But metropolitan, combined and other local authorities, where capacity has been diminished by austerity, and especially those institutions led by Directly-Elected Mayors, will have their own expectations of universities. They will soon be knocking on the door, if they are not already.

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