Will Arrows Hit their Target?

Posted by Louise Kempton, 6th November, 2013

It is interesting to note how the word ‘local’ has been quietly dropped from the title of the Witty review of ‘Universities and Growth’ which was released in October.  The original terms of reference published in April was entitled ‘Universities in their Local Communities: Enabling Economic Growth’ and talked about exploring “the range of ways that universities contribute to their local economies including as agents of research and innovation, as providers of skills, employers, purchasers of goods and services, and as facilitators bringing people together” and “how to create an integrated strategy between the local and national players”. 

However in the six months between the terms of reference being written and the publication of the final report there would appear to have been some influence brought to bear to remove any hint of a ‘place’ agenda in describing the (potential) role universities can play in driving growth.  In fact the final document has executed a superlative volte-face, and instead is now urging that funding should be structured “by technology/industry opportunity – not by postcode.”  It also tells us to “embrace the country’s density of population and institutions”, all of which will be music to the ears of those institutions that happen to be located in areas that are ‘thick’ with potential collaborators in both the public and private sectors.

Likewise there will be sighs of relief to be heard in research intensive universities located in parts of the country that are struggling economically, as any  fears of being forced, or even just expected to help build the capacity of their local economies in return for access to public funding has been once again been overlooked.  They now have carte blanche to work with the ‘best’ collaborators wherever they might be, as it is now all about benefitting UK plc. Unfortunately the ‘best’ tend to be concentrated in the parts of the country that are most economically vibrant, and herein lies the paradox.  Places with the greatest need for investment in innovation will often not have the existing industrial capacity required to assimilate and capitalise on new knowledge or applications stemming from research in their local universities. Thus universities located in these places of low absorptive capacity that do generate research with industrial applications are more likely to seek commercialisation opportunities further afield with suitable national or international firms.  So the ‘rich’ (places) get richer and the ‘poor’ (places) get poorer.

Witty also offers an extremely narrow definition of the role universities can play in contributing to economic growth.  The underlying assumption seems to be that the only (economic) value that can be derived from universities is in scientific and technological fields.  Bodies such as the European Commission and OECD take a very different line, and they have given increasing prominence to the importance of the research strengths of universities in  the arts, humanities and social sciences – for example contributions to the creative industries, business processes, service (including public service) design and policy and practice in the field of urban and regional development.

Furthermore, the OECD in its highly esteemed reviews of higher education and territorial development  in 47 regions across member countries emphasises not only the potential contribution universities can make to the economies of their cities and regions, but also the important roles they can play in social and cultural development. 

For its part the European Commission through its new approach to regional development known as ‘smart specialisation’ (which will be an underpinning concept of structural funding post 2013) explicitly acknowledges  the role of universities not only as generators of research and knowledge, but also in helping to build absorptive, leadership and collaborative capacity locally.  It states that “Smart specialisation ascribes a key role to universities as actors in their local innovation eco-systems, connecting global and local knowledge domains, and arguably gives them far more prominence than has been the case in previous structural funding programmes. There is a compelling case therefore for universities to play …. a much more broadly defined role than just generators of technological research and other ‘upstream’ activities.”

In contrast the Witty review presents us with a view of the world in which the contribution of universities to economic development is necessarily linear and in one direction – this is even reflected in the language used to present the report’s big idea of “arrow” projects.  This kind of terminology (and likewise ‘Catapults’) is in danger of presenting an oversimplified view of how economic development and innovation happens.  If we must rely on simplistic  terms such as ‘arrows’  maybe ‘boomerangs’ would be more appropriate?  At least they usually return to the place from where they were launched!

The idea that pouring money into university research will release a plethora of inventions that the private sector can just pick up and successfully commercialise is one that has been extensively critiqued in the academic literature.   The ‘valley of death’ syndrome is well evidenced by the number of patent family applications resulting from research heavily funded by the UK public purse.  A recent study  by the Intellectual Property Office shows the highest ranked UK applicant for portfolios of patents relating to graphene (Manchester University) is in joint 163rd place worldwide, in a ‘league table’ dominated by Korean and Chinese corporations and universities.

While it is certainly the case that UK universities are highly ranked and regarded worldwide for their quality research, the challenge of how to translate  this ‘excellence’ into innovation for the benefit of the national economy seems to beyond the grasp of policy makers.  There would appear to be resistance to any move that could be interpreted as ‘telling universities what to do’ in return for their public funding, based on the argument that this might curtail their ability to seek and attain global ‘excellence’.  But is academic excellence being pursued at the cost of the public good?

There needs to be more proactive support for the growing links between universities and their Local Enterprise Partnerships, particularly in terms of designing plans for the allocation and use of EU structural and investment funds and look at good practice examples.  Policy makers should be seeking guidance on how to actively promote and incentivise these kinds of local partnerships rather than continue to rely on mutual goodwill and trust between local leaders.  To support these endeavours the parts of government concerned with economic growth should revisit the recommendations of the Heseltine Review and devolve some of the centrally managed budgets targeted at promoting innovation if they want to  ensure all parts of the UK places can absorb and retain the potential benefits of universities in their areas.

[i] Higher education in regional and city development

[ii] Graphene – The worldwide patent landscape in 2013 (PDF, 4,413KB)

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