Universities can help their communities navigate Brexit

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, universities have a responsibility to help their local communities, says Robin Kirby

By Dr Robin Kirby, Strategic Advisor to the Vice-Chancellor, Falmouth University

The aftershocks that followed the referendum result earthquake in June are still being felt. Universities are still calculating how Brexit may impact the sector, from a fall in student numbers, to the threat to international collaboration. We will be adjusting to the uncertainty and change for years to come.

However, this is a time when leaders in Higher Education can and should look up from their sector concerns and act to support their local communities and economies that are also facing challenges as a consequence of our departure from the EU.  

Universities have resources, knowledge, connections and creative capital that can be leveraged for the benefit of their neighbours

Universities have resources, knowledge, connections and creative capital that can be leveraged for the benefit of their neighbours.

Adopting a ‘civic mission’ is nothing new: many universities’ mission statements or strategic plans will include an aspiration to make a positive impact on their local region. But this is the ideal juncture to rediscover and rejuvenate that undertaking, to commit to specific behaviours and not to rely on the ‘halo effect’.

Of course, job creation, expenditure on goods and services, attracting fresh talent and providing access to educational opportunities are all beneficial to regional economies. Yet, there is room for universities to think more boldly about using their position to make an even greater contribution to local growth. 

At Falmouth, we wholeheartedly believe that universities’ contribution to regional growth and development must be more than a bolt-on to day-to-day educational or research roles. ‘Growing Cornwall’ is one of our key strategic objectives and is been hardwired into the University, partly as a consequence of the significant EU and UK Government investment in Cornish Higher Education infrastructure that we have benefitted from over a decade and a half.

Particularly relevant for institutions outside of London or the big metropolitan hubs, is the importance of creating a talent pipeline that challenges the ‘brain drain’ to the south east. That process begins with engagement with local schools and work to raise local aspiration. It includes strong local student recruitment and working hand-in-hand with regional businesses to ensure that when students graduate, their skills are sought after locally for high value and rewarding jobs. 

Constant dialogue with the regional industry stakeholders and a diligent management of course portfolios enables universities to equip their graduates with the specific knowledge and skills to add value to local businesses. 

Universities are in a great position to be able to apply their knowledge and expertise to meet specific regional challenges

Universities are in a great position to be able to apply their knowledge and expertise to meet specific regional challenges. At Falmouth, our research themes of Digital Economy, Smart Design and Creative, Connected Communities, specifically address the social and economic challenges of our county.

Finally, universities are well placed to foster entrepreneurship and the establishment of new start-ups. Their facilities, creativity and network of industry contacts means that they are the perfect place for young, ambitious businesses to begin. Agreements that make being based in the region a pre-requisite of early backing can go a long way to guaranteeing long-term local job creation and investment. 

Falmouth University’s ground breaking postgraduate business incubation programme, Launchpad has just received funding from the EU for another three years. The programme is designed to foster the creation of start-up businesses in Cornwall, creating high-value jobs, attracting investment and growing the digital and technology sector in the county. 

Following a successful pilot programme, the University predicts that Launchpad will deliver 128 jobs and 32 high-growth, knowledge based companies in the first three years – headquartered across Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly – increasing to 526 jobs by 2023. 

While global events loom large and raise questions about the future international impact of UK Higher Education, universities shouldn’t overlook the transformative effect they can have on the communities right on their doorstep.

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