Universities are already important community focal points, attracting inward investment from around the world. Working with local authorities, local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and other partners, universities could be required to start fostering those links even more now – through business engagement, through research and innovation, and through the hundreds of thousands of international students and staff who choose to come here.
The latest Higher Education-Business, Community Interaction Survey – just published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England – highlights how increased links between universities, businesses and the public sector are boosting the economy and generating jobs in all corners of the UK.
The knowledge economy continues to thrive through the interaction between UK universities and their partners (which is worth £4.2bn, up 6% on the previous year).
The success of start-up companies set up by graduates has improved from last year as well. Although the figure is down on the previous year to 4,160, the number surviving after three years is up 15.5% and the total turnover has risen by more than a third (36.7%), bringing in a total of £174m to the local economy.
Engagement between universities and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is stronger than ever. Overall, the total income from SMEs is up 7.8% on the previous year. Engagement with businesses, both large and small, continues to increase too, with the income from continual professional development up 12.9%.
The survey highlights how universities' impact goes beyond simply those who study there. For example, there has been a rise of nearly 50% in the number of residents attending free events.
This role as a cultural hub for the community is evidence of universities' capacity to support non-graduates as well as graduates. The debate around the EU referendum and Brexit highlighted the importance of engaging those who feel disenfranchised from society, and universities are in a great position to play their part here.
The HE-BCI survey reveals that the number of social enterprises is on the increases (although it's only the second year that these have been counted) and in 2014-15 there was a total of 138 created, providing direct benefits to residents. This is a growing commitment for higher education and there are more than 50 universities across the country that have pledged to embed a culture of social entrepreneurship within their institution, and across the rest of the sector.
HEFCE and the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement have also recently begun six pilot collaborative projects to address a range of social issues which have a direct impact on the community, including mental health among young men and preventative healthcare for young people.
In a period of both political and economic uncertainty, universities have an increasingly important role to play: as generators of jobs and ideas, and, also, as important focal points in their communities. This latest survey shows that universities are well placed to meet this challenge.