English devolution generates equal amounts of passion and confusion. Speaking in the House of Commons last October, one MP expressed his ‘violent enthusiasm’ for the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, then working its way through parliament.
The Bill is now law, and we’ve seen a gaggle of devolution deals announced, with more expected at the March budget. Yet an official report found ‘no clear, measurable objectives for devolution, the timetable is rushed and efforts are not being made to inject openness or transparency into the deal negotiations’. This tension is mirrored in debates at local, regional and national level.
Universities are starting to pick routes through the confusion. For example, the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University have produced a clear guide to making the most of devolution in the region, endorsed by the Prime Minister.
Universities, as providers of education and skills, significant economic actors, large employers, key partners of public services and leaders in local growth initiatives, have central roles to play. Now is the time for universities to translate keen interest into engagement and to assume a greater role not only in their locality, but nationally and internationally too.
In England we’ve seen a succession of initiatives from Regional Development Agencies to Local Enterprise Partnerships, Combined Authorities to City Deals, and Growth Deals to Devolution Deals. The relationship between centre and periphery is changing and the trajectory is inevitably towards greater devolution, heightened perhaps by the UK’s relatively centralised starting point compared to many other countries.
The government has called for decisions to be taken, where possible, at the lowest level that they can effectively be taken. With greater devolution, universities – who often already coordinate economic and social activity in their locality and sit on local development boards – can assume greater local leadership, filling the voids created by decentralisation. For example, the University of Essex have appointed a Chief Scientific Officer, seconded to Essex County Council.
Nearly all universities have in their name the city or region in which they are based. Along with other so-called ‘anchor institutions’ such as hospitals, universities are deeply embedded in the local economy, working with businesses, meeting skills needs, educating future workforces, and have an important social connection with the local community.
However, perhaps more so than other anchors, universities are ideally positioned to bridge the local, national and international. With the focus on localism, universities can help improve their locality, but also transcend it, pulling in their institutional, research and alumni networks to help connect their locality to the wider world. Universities have a ‘connective anchor’ role.
Simultaneously, with the emergence of clusters of cities (such as the Northern Powerhouse), this connecting role is even greater, and there is potential for universities to take the lead on tackling societal issues – aging, climate change and disease, for example – that will increasingly fall into the remit of cities and local government rather than nations. Importantly, this includes small and medium cities (who are often more innovative) and rural areas too.
The varied roles of universities beyond teaching and research are often grouped together as ‘third mission’ activity. As the anchor role of universities increases, could third mission activity become core activity?
Universities have and are continuing to bring third mission activity into the student offer, with placements in industry, integrated curricula, and work on ‘real-world’ problems and Grand Challenges becoming commonplace. Interdisciplinarity is key to tackling both global problems and local problems, and again universities are key to connecting the local and the global.
A ‘porous’ approach to connections to other universities, businesses, and local government, based on reciprocity between community, university and other partners, brings benefits to all. As national policy claims to concentrate on localism, this opens opportunities for universities to act bigger, both within their locality but also beyond it.