Universities and Geography: Learning from the OECD?

Guest blog by Kevin Richardson, Research England

UKRI committed in its original Strategic Prospectus to publish a Place Strategy and work is progressing towards its publication. Meanwhile, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has opened an investigation into ‘universities and geography’. Kevin Richardson, Research England, identifies many common issues.

The OECD is right to open an investigation into ‘universities and geography’ even if no decision has yet been taken on any potential output or audience. Many OECD Member States are faced with wide and, in a growing number of places, widening disparities of wealth. As Andres Rodriquez Pose shows in his important recent work on ‘the revenge of places that don’t matter’ these disparities are driving clear political effects, at least in part, driving the growth of populism and nationalism across many states in the OECD. Whilst universities are perceived increasingly as being with the ‘elites’ and ‘out of touch’ with local people.

The school of ‘New Economic Geography’ attributes much of the rise of agglomeration in cities to the way in which knowledge transfers more effectively within and across dense and complex networks in large, urban settings. Universities are key drivers in these urban networks, and, conversely, because of their typical location, much less so in looser, rural environments. Others attribute more of the consolidation to the unintended side effects of market-led economics, increasingly prevalent in global higher education and national and international markets for teaching and research. Conversely those states which favour a more spatially managed approach have sought to develop stronger exploitation of endogenous strengths in a complicated matrix of integrated policy design, within the context and realities of complex multi-level governance. Such approaches recognise the importance of local universities, but more their contributions to the local/regional than the national context.

Conversely, many OECD member states continue to manage higher education from the national level on an explicitly and deliberately a-spatial basis. Management of higher education policies, often singularly by one government department, provides silo management of the sector and little or no coordination with/from other Ministries.

At the same time, post crises austerity in public finances and transformation and growing competition for both research funding and student numbers have re-invigorated old debates, not just about ‘what are universities for?’ and ‘who are universities for?’ but, also, increasingly ‘where are universities for?’

An Emerging International Consensus?

The OECD review held a working group discussion last week in Paris, and at this early stage a number of generic interventionist themes have been floated. These include:

  • Supporting and encouraging universities to do more with their ‘local place’ is not simply a matter for higher education policies nor for universities acting alone or collectively. Development of new approaches needs to be considered in the context of complex, multi-level governance at different levels, not by single government departments acting in silos in a top down manner.
  • Financial incentives are inevitable to promote more exchange of knowledge with the local/regional economy, and these must be substantial and fixed for the longer term. But internal non-financial incentives are equally important e.g. allocated work time, status, promotion criteria, etc. Both types of incentive should seek to change organisational cultures and conduct, not just provide a simple and ongoing financial (cash) incentive or subsidy.
  • Any new approach must be spatially aware and targeted. Continuing to act without any spatial prioritisation can only lead to more unintended spatial consequences, serving, inevitably, to further widen regional disparities.
  • The UN Sustainable Development Goals, although not perfect for this purpose, provide a robust and policy-driven performance framework, much more so than a simple and narrower focus on productivity, GDP per capita as a proxy for wealth, or even input measures such as gross levels or levels of business investment in research and innovation (R&I).
  • Greater levels of public and community engagement are needed to drive ‘demand pull’ and to address wider societal challenges. It is in this context that the concept of the civic universities is critical. The recent work of the Civic University Commission in the UK, together with its proposals for Civic University Agreements, are an important contribution to this debate.
  • Overall performance of universities supporting their local places is as much determined by local/regional levels of demand and absorptive capacity for R&I, and effective institutional ecosystems and collaborative leadership, as much as by the performance of universities acting individually or collectively. Any financial incentive needs to target these external factors as well as well as internal capacities, systems and cultures.
  • Since new approaches to knowledge exchange need to adopt a ‘systems’ or ‘place-based’ approach, measurement of performance of individual institutions should be complemented with performance measurement and management of systems and places.

Critically, OECD Member States need to develop a deep understanding of overall performance at the local/regional level. Critically, they need a compelling narrative of why and how they intend to invest in specific places, and an explicit intervention logic of why their proposed new investments will lead to positive change towards a clearly identified strategic goal.

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