Boosting regional research and development: The role of regional university networks

As published by HEPI on 14 May 2021

This blog has been kindly contributed by Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher, and Dr Peter O’Brien, Executive Director of Yorkshire Universities – the umbrella bodies representing universities and higher education colleges across their respective regions. You can find Diana and Peter on Twitter at @dianajbeech and @obrienpeter72

Having just strengthened their support in the North-East and the Midlands in last week’s local elections, it probably wouldn’t be the Government’s natural instinct to seek advice from London on tackling regional inequalities in research funding.

Yet, yesterday’s HEPI report by authors from University College London (UCL) makes a compelling case for why place-based investment is about much more than investing in the big players within individual regions, but recognising the full diversity of regional research ecosystems and harnessing the power of partnerships right across the nation.

The authors of the report seemingly apologise for directing their contribution from one of the UK’s larger universities in the highly lucrative ‘Golden Triangle’. But their willingness to identify possible solutions to help policymakers build more resilient and sustainable regional research and development (R&D) initiatives is, itself, reason why the UK’s future research success relies on all parts of the higher education system playing a role – including our genuinely excellent, research-intensive institutions – as well as other national and regional partners.

As the report makes clear, levelling up research relies on building strengths within regions, across regions and between regions. It is in this context that regional university networks, such as London Higher (LH) and Yorkshire Universities (YU), can help shine a light on particular research capabilities within regions, which cannot only be better connected to local needs, but also help to turbocharge initiatives in other parts of the UK. Our organisations’ distinct strengths lie in the fact that we represent diverse networks of universities, of all types and missions, which together have complementary capabilities, and are committed to the long-term development and success of the places in which they are located.

Regional university networks such as ours can also facilitate the symbiotic co-ordination between R&D, skills and training, knowledge-exchange and other demand-side growth interventions. This is something which is often neglected in the debate about the value and contribution of R&D to addressing spatial inequalities.

In addition, our work alongside business, further education colleges and civic partners, including local government and the health and care sector, and our relationships with regional government institutions, provide a framework where indigenous institutional capacity, of the sort advocated in the new HEPI R&D report, is much more likely to materialise than if it were left to top-down, one-size-fits-all initiatives.

The respective missions of London Higher and Yorkshire Universities are in essence to make the case for universities and higher education colleges in both London and Yorkshire and, in particular, to demonstrate the value that our members can bring to recovery and to efforts to ‘build back better’, both locally and nationally.

While we are relatively established actors in the UK higher education sector, the advent of growing interest in the place agenda, coupled with devolution to Metro Mayors, has re-emphasised the value of collaboration between universities within the regions and the importance of influencing national and sub-national policy agendas. These include those that Sadiq Khan in London and Tracy Brabin in West Yorkshire were given mandates to deliver at the ballot box on 6 May.

At times, we may adopt alternative interpretations of the levelling up agenda. However, we are united around the fact that regional university networks are intrinsic features of the higher education landscape, and have much to offer to the development of our local spaces – not to mention to national and mission-based groups and, importantly, to the major economic and societal opportunities and challenges facing the country.

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