This article was co-authored by Alex Bols (GuildHE Deputy CEO) and Matthew Guest (GuildHE Policy Manager, Knowledge Exchange and Industrial Strategy).
The United Kingdom has a rich economic heritage with various stages of the industrial revolutions happening in different regions across the UK. This has resulted in world-leading businesses being located around the country and our cities, towns and rural areas have competitive advantages that will be essential to shaping our economic future. However, the UK has greater disparities in regional productivity than many other European countries.
The UK Government’s Industrial Strategy seeks to develop a range of responses for different parts of the country to address this challenge and ensure that no part of the country gets left behind. Thinking about the importance of place is not new: The “Northern Powerhouse” based around the new Manchester metro region and “Midlands Engine” are just some of the initiatives that the new Strategy seeks to strengthen.
However, place means different things in different parts of the country. In some parts of the country, place will refer to a city – like Manchester, Newcastle or Glasgow – in others, it may refer to a county – such as Cornwall – whereas in other parts of the country it might be a region, like East Anglia.
Within each local economy, universities and higher education providers are increasingly recognised as anchors of their economies. They produce highly skilled graduates, attract businesses to locate – or be set-up – near universities, as well as often being one of the largest employers in a local region. Supporting universities to be able to maximise their contributions to local and regional economic regeneration continues to be core to a successful, dispersed economy.
This recognition of this important role of universities is just one part of their wider civic role as cultural, sporting and societal hubs that help enrich a local community.
The missing piece?
One piece of the jigsaw that is often overlooked is in those industries that are more geographically dispersed. In these sectors, place may have a different meaning.
Sectors like the creative industries make a huge economic impact to the UK (£92bn at last time check) but are spread over the whole country and are often small, micro or single-person industries. Whereas another nationally-important industry, the agricultural sector, has a huge geographical spread, for obvious reasons.
However, for both of these industries, the universities and colleges that produce many of their graduates are often relatively small or very specialist institutions. These smaller or more specialist institutions can play two key roles.
Firstly they can act as anchors for their local communities – although due to their size they can be more creative and flexible, responding rapidly and able play a more helpfully disruptive role (see David Marlow’s blog on smaller, specialist institutions and the industrial strategy). Secondly, however, they are also anchors of their industries that are less geographically concentrated. The role of specialist universities and colleges as “industry-anchors” is a key element that can sometimes be overlooked in discussions surrounding the industrial strategy.
It will be by fitting together these different parts of the jigsaw, recognising this need for different approaches in different parts of the country, that will enable us to develop an Industrial Strategy that meets the needs of the whole country. We need to consider not just city, county or region but also sectors of the economy – and the key role of specialist and technical universities and colleges in this. Universities may well be regional or local economy anchors but they are also “industry-anchors” as well.