How is your university helping the local community?

Professor Jane Turner discusses how universities can best contribute to effective Local Industrial Strategies?

The long-awaited publication of the Industrial Strategy may not have created the headlines that many expected, but for those of us in higher education, the call for Local Industrial Strategies and the related commitment to further increasing HEIF funding to a total of £250 million a year by 2020-21, are particularly welcome.

There is no doubt that historic inequalities in regional growth can only be addressed at a local level. All universities have a vital role to play in their local economies and in the national economy – and it is essential that HEIs engage with businesses and their communities to make the most of their knowledge and expertise.

However, for modern universities – many of whom are taking on the mantle as ‘anchor institutions’ in their local communities – it is vital that they become key players from the outset. Despite the current financial climate facing the sector, we should not underestimate the scale of commitment for universities around supporting ‘place’, and creating prosperous communities across the UK, and there is a huge opportunity for us to make a real difference.  

The new £115 million Strength in Places Fund will support areas to build on their science and innovation strengths and develop stronger local networks. There is funding for collaborative programmes proposed by universities, local employers, Local Enterprise Partnerships and their counterparts in the devolved nations. And Local Industrial Strategies will be agreed between regions and government by March 2019.

The ambition to develop local plans is the right approach and the success of the Industrial Strategy, as a whole, will largely depend on these.

A model which other universities may look to is the one we have created in the Tees Valley. As I have discussed in University Business previously, in late 2015 the region suffered a huge economic blow with the closure of the SSI steelworks plant, resulting in 3,000 job losses and the end of steel production at the 98-year-old Redcar works. In the aftermath, Lord Heseltine’s Tees Valley: Opportunity Unlimited report called for the development of plans for a “strong and sustainable economic future for the Tees Valley”.

In response, we published our own blueprint for boosting business and employment in the Tees Valley through our DigitalCity – Catalyst for Growth vision, which set out a five-point plan for the region to become recognised for “the superior digital capability of its businesses”. This includes directly supporting Tees Valley targets to increase start-ups by 25% and creating 25,000 jobs by 2025, and helping to close the regional and national digital skills gap which costs the UK £63 billion a year in lost GDP.

However, we have not stopped with one collaborative programme and this year have progressed a number of local ‘place’ initiatives which are already making an impact and can contribute to the Local Industrial Strategy. 

Innovate Tees Valley was established to help Teesside’s SME community overcome barriers to growth to bring in new products and services and reach new markets at home and abroad. It combines the expertise of four business growth specialists – DigitalCity, North East of England Process Industries Cluster, Materials Processing Institute and Teesside University.  

The Creative Fuse North East partnership, made up of Teesside, Newcastle, Northumbria, Durham and Sunderland universities, is providing SMEs and freelancers with grants and support to ensure that the region’s creative, digital and IT sector becomes more resilient, grows faster and creates more and better jobs.

For too long the Tees Valley has struggled in terms of regional economic rankings. However, the Industrial Strategy, Northern Powerhouse strategy and our own devolution deal have created a golden opportunity for us to disrupt and change our trajectory, and Teesside University is absolutely key to that journey

Our latest initiative, due to open in 2019 on Darlington’s Central Park, is the £22.3 million National Horizons Centre – a biomedical research, education and teaching facility to address the growth needs of some of the most rapidly expanding UK technology sectors. It will specialise in providing the full range of skills for the bio industries and in applying digital technologies to improve performance and productivity in advanced manufacturing. 

Personally, I am a member of the South Tees Development Corporation board alongside senior local authority leaders and local business people. We have published our vision – which aims to create 20,000 skilled jobs, heavily focused on manufacturing innovation and advanced technologies within a high value, low carbon, diverse and circular economy, and contribute £1 billion per annum into the UK economy – alongside a draft masterplan for the region.

It is clear from all of these, and our plans to roll out a comprehensive programme that will ‘prime’ a scale-up ecosystem in the Tees Valley, that partnership is absolutely critical. We cannot – and will not – do this in our own. 

For too long the Tees Valley has struggled in terms of regional economic rankings. However, the Industrial Strategy, Northern Powerhouse strategy and our own devolution deal have created a golden opportunity for us to disrupt and change our trajectory, and Teesside University is absolutely key to that journey. 

In considering their contribution to development of these ‘new’ Local Industrial Strategies, other universities should look at what they are already doing well within their local communities and how this might form the basis of their plans. This is not a case of starting from scratch – but there is a need to make sure that their support for local economies is hitting the right spots.

Alignment to other initiatives promoted in the Industrial Strategy, such as Sector Deals and Grand Challenges, may be needed to unlock national and international opportunities but consider the relevance of these to your local community. Look at the make-up of business and industry on your doorstep, and make sure that Local Industrial Strategies fit with the knowledge, expertise and resources of these. 

Finally, be part of that bigger ‘joined up’ conversation at local level. So in the same way that I have taken my place on South Tees Development Corporation board, other universities should ensure they have a seat at the top table and align their provision to priorities outlined in strategic local economic plans.

Professor Jane Turner OBE is Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Engagement at Teesside University.

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