Universities in Levelling Up Ecosystems

This blog was kindly provided by Mike Boxall (@MikeBoxall1), higher education adviser to PA Consulting. Mike is also a member of the Steering Group for the Universities and Regions Forum established by City-REDI at the University of Birmingham. Mike writes here in a personal capacity.

Despite the commitment of many universities to growing their local engagement and impact, their enormous potential for helping tackle the challenges of levelling up has been underplayed in national and local strategies. Can new thinking about the place-based ecosystems within which social and economic wellbeing is determined, and about the roles of universities within those ecosystems, help unlock this paradox?

Whoever emerges as our next Prime Minister this autumn, and especially after the 2024 General Election, the place-related inequalities and injustices underpinning calls for levelling up (or whatever new labels it may gain) will remain national imperatives. Yet, notwithstanding a 350-page White Paper, we still lack consensus on just what levelling up should mean in practice, still less how it can best be delivered. In particular, there has been insufficient recognition from national, regional or local policymakers of the potential importance of universities to levelling up developments.

There are various reasons for this paradox: the national policy and funding regimes setting incentives and priorities for universities’ business success are uniformly ‘place blind’, while local policymakers often neglect universities when framing their development plans. The growing number of universities committed to greater engagement with their local communities thus encounter headwinds of misaligned national and local perspectives. A more systematic view of levelling up, rooted in local community contexts, can help span the policy and practical gaps.

As Daniel Crowe, Senior Policy Officer and Secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods recently observed, ‘For levelling up to be a success, it must be a bottom-up process that is led by communities themselves, rather than a top-down exercise.’ The experiences of inequality driving levelling up arise at local levels and must be addressed in and through the local ecosystems within which citizens live, work and interact.

The topographies of such local ecologies will be different for different policy missions; for example, between those geared towards public health, housing, reducing crime or increasing productivity. Universities have the potential to play important roles within all of these missions, most immediately by linking their educational and research activities to the wellbeing and prosperity of their localities. Those linkages are most effective when they are harnessed through local learning and innovation ecosystems, focused on growing the social, human and economic and other collective resources that shape the wellbeing and prosperity of communities. The table below illustrates the key elements of such learning and innovation ecosystems:

Framework for a Local Learning & Innovation Ecosystem.
Source: PA Consulting

We know well that differences in the legacies of social, human, economic, financial and institutional capital between places are associated with the relative advantages or disadvantages experienced by their citizens. But those associations do not explain how those inequalities arise – especially between ostensibly similarly endowed places – or, more importantly, how they can be ameliorated (especially for those suffering the greatest relative disadvantages). The answers and remedies to these questions sit within the dynamics of the inter-institutional relationships that bridge and translate the capital assets of localities to the lived experiences of their citizens. 

Universities can play pivotal roles in the economic, social, human and institutional dynamics of the places where they are located. They also contribute to the financial capital of their localities, through their role as ‘anchor institutions’ within their local economies. Universities are often among the largest employers in their localities, where their spending and investment contributes substantially to local incomes and wealth creation; the economic impact of this effect is typically estimated at around 2.5 to 3 times the university’s turnover. While for many universities these anchor effects are largely passive – relating (as the late Professor David Watson put it) to their ‘just being there’ – others have amplified their local economic impacts by running local services, sponsoring start-up businesses and procuring from local suppliers. 

Beyond their contributions to the economic capital of their localities, universities have major roles to play in the other elements of place-related capital; for example through:

  • social capital resources, by attracting thousands of highly qualified academics and professional staff, and often tens of thousands of students (many from overseas) into the communal pool of talents, knowledge and enterprise;
  • human capital formation, by providing access to advanced education and professional formation opportunities for young people and working adults, potentially enriching the skills and productivity of the local workforce; and
  • institutional capital capabilities, offering links to national and international networks of education, research and knowledge providers, extending the reach of local employers, businesses and civic services.

When they are mobilised within the civic life of their localities and integrated

with the related efforts of other institutions, providers and businesses, these contributions (and others like them) can have substantial impacts on the lives and prosperity of their communities. But this potential is often undermined by failings in the institutional dynamics within local ecosystems. Unhelpful rivalries, conflicting policy regimes and nugatory competition for funding or primacy can undermine collaborations between universities and other learning and training providers. Fragmented remits and disparate objectives between civic and development agencies can make it hard for universities to align themselves with coherent local strategies. Conversely, the complexities and cultures of universities themselves can seem impenetrable to employers and other agencies hoping to work with them.

A further constraint from the perspective of universities themselves is the almost complete lack of any place-related criteria or incentives in their public funding sources, all of which are effectively place-blind. Given the extreme pressures on most universities’ financial positions, many feel that investing scarce resources into local regeneration is, at best, a distraction from their academic priorities. But this is not a universal viewpoint, and a number of universities have found that imaginative and enterprising local collaborations and joint ventures have given them access to new sources of funding and business growth. 

It follows that while universities have undoubted potential to play much greater roles within place-based levelling up strategies, they cannot realise this potential on their own. Levelling up, by definition, is a team game requiring the combined and aligned contributions of many different players. Stretching the analogy, universities may not necessarily be the captains or even the star strikers of local levelling up teams: committed and energetic midfield players are often equally key to team success. In order to identify, promote and enhance the roles of universities in levelling up strategies, we need a much better understanding of how they can better engage with (and where necessary initiate and lead) purposeful and effective ecosystem partnerships.That understanding will require new tools and methods in order to capture and evaluate the mix of interpersonal, cultural and political factors that determine how well different organisations work together towards shared purposes and aims. Universities themselves need to address a whole range of critical success factors for expanding their civic roles and engagement, on the following lines:

Critical success factors for expanding a university’s civic roles and engagement
Source: PA Consulting

The idea of place-related learning and innovation ecosystems is two-sided: as well as aligning and coordinating the activities of universities and their local partners towards social benefits, the ecosystem also provides an environment for all those involved to learn together how to grow their collective understanding and capabilities to resolve complex challenges. This depends on well-developed mechanisms for knowledge sharing, monitoring and review – precisely the conditions that the National Audit Office has highlighted as missing from past levelling up initiatives. Universities are uniquely fitted to meet this need, stepping up as orchestrators of collective learning within their local ecosystems and thus providing the X-Factor of successful levelling up.

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