As you walk around Newcastle city centre, it’s difficult to escape the impact of university partnerships with employers, the city council, the hospital trust, the North East Local Enterprise Partnership and other important partners. The fruits of these are visible throughout the city, and much further afield across the north east.
The Newcastle Helix – a £350m sustainable urban innovation site in the heart of the city – is one of Europe’s most exciting innovation hubs.
There are now more than 2,600 jobs on site in 65 different organisations. This true coming-together of academia, business, public sector and more has been innovating and collaborating to support the global fight against Covid-19. Not only to combat the immediate impacts but preparing cities and regions for our post-covid world.
In the past two decades, the International Centre for Life has welcomed an average of 300,000 people a year to its science centre: families, adults and school groups. Ground-breaking research into genetics and the concept of IVF babies has taken place there and thousands of patients have benefitted directly at its NHS clinics.
The Great North Museum, Hatton Art Gallery and Northern Stage Theatre, all located on the campus of Newcastle University, are yet more examples of how the city’s universities are improving lives through their support for education and culture.
We want to reach out to new partners across the UK and make sure that employers know how to go about developing partnerships with their local universities
None of this would have been possible without close working, the sharing of knowledge and expertise and the joint ambition of local politicians, the city’s universities and employers. These collaborations have brought energy and opportunity to the north east, with innovation and technology replacing fading older industries.
A new report – written by the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE) and published today by Universities UK – shows that university collaborations like this are having a positive effect across the UK. It predicts that over the next five years UK universities will provide £11.6 billion worth of support and services to small enterprises, businesses, and not-for-profits. More than 21,000 new companies and charities will be started because of universities, and thousands of nurses, doctors, teachers and other key workers trained by them.
These figures are predicated on previous impact. They assume that all things will remain equal – this means a stable funding and operating environment for universities. Instead of settling for the status quo, however, we should be looking to strengthen the role of universities by embedding them at the centre of strategies for economic and social recovery. This would result in greater impact and even faster economic growth, a better future for everyone.
Universities, employers, and policy makers need to decide what more can be done to achieve this. I am pleased to be leading Universities UK’s Economic and Social Recovery Taskforce, which is seeking to answer this question. We want the UK to bounce back stronger, with opportunity and prosperity spread across the country. We will be concentrating our efforts on employer engagement to create stronger partnerships, focussing on specific sectors of strategic importance to government including health.
The taskforce will support the development of sectoral partnership agreements which identify ways of encouraging and developing collaboration to meet skills needs, provide opportunities and support economic recovery and growth. The partnership agreements will support discussions around the development of future talent, support for levelling up, local engagement and key themes such as the green recovery. We want to reach out to new partners across the UK and make sure that employers know how to go about developing partnerships with their local universities.
The UK government has the policy levers which could incentivise universities to focus on areas in most urgent need of assistance
We also want to highlight the role graduate skills play in levelling up, providing opportunities for young people and those who need to upskill and enhancing local economic recovery. We see universities as playing a key role in the development of technical education to maximise the benefits to learners and providing the talent and mix of skills employers need.
Others can play a part too. Research bodies need to look at ways of addressing regional inequalities in funding. The UK government has the policy levers which could incentivise universities to focus on areas in most urgent need of assistance.
While we have the government commitment to Build Back Better, which recognises the importance of university innovation and research, the value of graduate skills is noticeably absent. We also now have the Skills Bill and universities, already big providers of technical skills, will have a key role to play. The value of universities and, in particular, their graduates needs to be recognised to ensure that the ambitious plans for economic recovery, for developing the skills employers need and for levelling up achieve what we hope they will.
I am proud of the work already being carried out across the UK by universities in support of the nation’s economic and social recovery. This can be seen very clearly in the content in Universities UK’s new campaign, #GettingResults, demonstrating the breadth and depth of this impact, the lives that are being improved. Universities have played a crucial role in the fight against Covid-19. Now is the time for them to lead the nation’s recovery, levelling up opportunity and creating wealth for all parts of the UK.
Professor Chris Day is chair of Universities UK’s Economic and Social Recovery Taskforce, and vice-chancellor of Newcastle University.