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  • Writer's pictureDavid Marlow

Putting Universities in their place

Updated: Jun 26

In LEDC’s final episode before the General Election, David and Mike speak with Dr Peter O’Brien, Executive Director of Yorkshire Universities (YU) – the association of eleven universities and one specialist Higher Education Institution (HEI) in Yorkshire and the Humber (Y&H). How do twelve quite different anchor institutions across a large diverse region of major city regions, rural and coastal areas collaborate effectively? And how are these agendas likely to change in the short and medium terms? Whether your geography has multiple or even no universities, the agendas covered in this episode are going to be highly relevant in the aftermath of GE24 and beyond.

University students near a stairwell

What is more important in YU – the ‘Y’ or the ‘U’?

There is a strong rationale for cohorts of universities to act collectively in a shared geography when, like Yorkshire and the Humber, it has a distinctive identity and brand, and where there are issues that will benefit from university collaboration at this scale. The challenge is to identify what can best be done collaboratively at regional scale – especially in a context where there are major city regions, core and key cities, towns, rural and coastal communities each with their own identities and priority needs.

A key process for identifying a YU Unique Selling Proposition (USP) is the Leaders Board of Combined Authority (CA) Directly Elected Mayors (DEMs) and Local Authorities (LAs) meeting with universities and other major stakeholders. If Y&H completes the Hull & East Riding devo-deal, it will become the first region with full DEM coverage, and this gives Yorkshire a special opportunity going forward to which the 12 HEIs have a responsibility and need to respond.

What can be done better by universities collaborating regionally?

Peter gave a couple of examples of how universities working collaboratively can provide research and policy development expertise for CAs, LAs and place leadership teams – helping them to formulate place-based strategies and business cases to attract investment.

There is a lot that can be done in terms of joint lobbying and mutual support for influencing government policies. And universities working together can bring different capabilities and capacity to support mayoral agendas – for instance some might be better at widening participation, others at support for business growth in key sectors.

Where there are multiple universities in functional economic geographies and labour markets, their scale and footprints can be highly significant for, for instance, property markets, transport corridors, housing demand, and a range of other key policy areas critical to LED and placemaking.

If CAs and LAs have more than one university in their geography, have collective collaborative relationships is going to be increasingly important.

How do ‘cold spots’ make the most of regional universities?

The financial and policy context for universities has changed during the 2020s. The capacity to deliver a new full-service university in cities and towns without them is more challenging with today’s constraints. For the medium term at least, there may be more merit in trying to attract or expand local facilities and services in conjunction with Colleges or non-traditional education institutions like University Technical Colleges (UTCs) or Institutes of Technology (IoT). Similarly, workplace or even community-based operations may have potential. This type of strategy, combined with a strong emphasis on distance online learning, may offer more realisable local higher-level skills and knowledge exchange results than creating an entirely new institution.

In or out of scope of enhanced devolution?

Its interesting to consider how far universities will and should be integral to future devolution agreements. Typically, the education offers in devo-deals has focused on further and adult education outside traditional university teaching models, with individual universities seeking participation and funding in specific initiatives like investment zones or town deals.

Peter recognises the critical importance of university place-based roles as anchor institutions. But he also stresses that much of the system remains nationally determined, and universities are passionate about their status as autonomous independent institutions. Although the episode did not have time to explore this further, one wonders how far HEIs would welcome sub-national leaders assuming new formal powers and resources to shape their own HE-systems and configurations.


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