Whilst the role of universities in local economic growth is not a new story – during the 19th century many universities were established to accelerate regional growth and social prosperity – there is renewed emphasis on how universities and colleges can contribute to local economic growth story.

There are several likely reasons for this:

  • the higher education sector’s engagement with local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and combined authorities
  • the prospect of European structural and innovation funding or by regional growth funds
  • overall there is an increasing commitment to multidisciplinary research which addresses societal ’grand challenges‘
  • there is a growing interaction with nearby Catapult centres

For our part, our January grant letter from Government for the 2015-16 financial year asks us to work with the Cities and Local Growth Unit to deliver the aspirations set out in the Science and Innovation Strategy and reflect the importance of ’place‘ in delivering science and innovation aims.

How universities are engaging locally

An anchor institution will be involved in the local community on several levels:

Engagement with local schools

Good schools are crucial to local economic development and attracting businesses to the area. Some universities sponsor their local school with the aim of improving academic performance. HEFCE is now funding National Networks for Collaborative Outreach, which aim to help secondary schools and colleges access university-led activities and create pathways for young people into higher education.

Local skills agenda

LEPs are key players in addressing local skills needs and are increasingly working with universities to find solutions. A report released last year by Universities UK and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, Forging Futures, demonstrated that different kinds of technical education and training are being designed at bachelors, masters and doctoral levels, to complement the traditional progression routes through higher education to employment from local apprenticeship programmes and HNDs.

Social innovation and social enterprise

There’s an increase in social enterprise modules for undergraduates who wish to set up companies delivering services in the community in new ways, and the first university business park for social enterprise is being established in Cardiff. We are seeing the development of ‘living laboratories’ – projects bringing together universities and local partners: businesses, community groups, local government and health authorities – to test out different solutions. Many universities are collaborating with and, in the case of the University of Derby for example, adopting local theatres, galleries and museums, which might otherwise close.

University-business interaction

There are many and varied examples of interaction between universities and the business sector. Many universities support spin-outs and start-ups from their own students and staff; run business and science parks where small and medium-sized companies find an environment conducive to innovation and growth; participate in inward investment initiatives; and offer business support services of various kinds. And we know from sector financial projections that substantial capital investment in campuses is set to continue, contributing to local economic growth in its own right.

Thus the ‘virtuous circle’ is created.

Successful organisations with high-value jobs are attracted to places where there is excellent research and development, advanced continuing professional development, targeted support for growth and innovation and cultural amenities. In turn, their presence makes it easier to raise aspiration and academic standards in schools and prepare students effectively for graduate-level employment.

Supporting projects through our Catalyst Fund and what we learnt

Our call last autumn for expressions of interest under the Catalyst Fund for innovative models of universities and colleges as ‘anchor institutions’ in their locality, brought a huge response.

The strongest expressions of interest made good use of the best available data and evidence relevant to their own locales, making a compelling, evidence-based proposal building on local economic and academic needs. In addition, these bids provided details of key partnerships and their potential contributions, and demonstrated the specific national and policy requirements of this call.

Extending our interactive HE and local growth data maps

Last October we released a vast amount of information relating to higher education and local growth in an interactive set of data maps. For the first time, HEFCE has brought school and higher education data together with employment and mobility data to give a comprehensive and detailed picture of higher education participation and provision, employment and graduate mobility.

We are using these maps in our discussions with universities and with LEPs, and hope they will provide a valuable evidence base for the ongoing development of Strategic Economic Plans, and also to help inform local decisions about where and when to invest different forms of funding. We are now extending and enhancing this data source in a number of ways:

  • mapping young participation to enable better understanding of how progression from Key Stage 5 study (A-level and equivalent) higher education varies across the country
  • adding school catchment areas updating the research quality and capacity section of the data using the recent REF results
  • developing the mapping to allow exploration at more detailed geographies to enable targeted analysis with regard to particular subject areas
  • developing our understanding of the geographical links between industry (especially SMEs) and higher education.

See our data maps.