Universities can lead the way to local growth

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act has now received royal assent. We can also expect to see more ‘Local Growth Deals’ in the coming months.

So far negotiations in this area have largely been between central government, and the elected leadership of local authorities. But to deliver new Local Growth Deals successfully will require local institutions, including universities, to contribute in a more active way.

The challenges of partnership

Previous research funded by HEFCE and published by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education revealed a range of formal and informal relations between universities and their civic partners.

Both sides recognise the mutual benefits of working together on common issues or challenges within their localities. Progress has been strong in some places. Elsewhere we can often see a gap between strategic dialogue at the highest levels of leadership and practical activity.

And there are other problems. Local partners often believe that universities have the capacity to do more to benefit their local area. Partners can, in some cases, see that a university has relevant expertise but can’t make use of it.

Individual local authorities and universities also operate within complex and evolving governance structures. Increasingly, they cover more than one single local area. So they can often find it difficult to deal with the competing interests and tensions within and between institutions.

Commonly, we also find institutional barriers and related challenges, which act as significant obstacles to effective partnership. They include institutional and financial motivations which do not directly reward collaborative working, but which must instead be cross-subsidised by other activities.

Then, of course, there’s the shortage of staff who can work collaboratively. Each sector has their own seemingly unfathomable organisational cultures, structures, procedures and terminology. And where collaborative working does take place, it is often difficult to measure performance and impact.

Why is this becoming more important?

So it’s clear enough that collaborative working throws up no shortage of challenges. But it is just as clear that it is more important than ever.

Cuts to local government funding and wider austerity measures mean, inevitably, that individual local authorities have less scope to act alone in the drive for local growth. And this means that many combined or local authorities now want to engage much more actively with universities.

Not only that, the universities appear to have the resource to support regional investments. The most recent forecasts show that universities are planning a substantial increase in capital investment over the forecast period.  At over £17.1 billion, this represents an average annual investment of £4,264 million, nearly 60 per cent higher than the previous four-year average.

Developing leaders

The Leadership Foundation research shows that ‘collaborative leadership’ will be critical in this situation, and should help to address many of the challenges to partnership. University leaders already have many of the leadership skills to establish and develop these sort of partnerships.

By planning for their organisation’s success, university leaders already have the future of their local areas at the centre of their vision.

They also recognise that working across institutions is difficult, and where they have established partnerships, they are frequently prepared to subordinate the strategic objectives of their institution to the wider needs of the area.

And they have a panoramic view. They are in a position to put ideas into practice and join things together for others. It also means they have to be outward-looking, and find ways to communicate beyond the cosy conventions of internal rhetoric and jargon.

They are, in short, committed to the lasting development and success of their region.

How can HEFCE help?

HEFCE wants institutions to become more involved in collaborative leadership, especially where universities, combined or local authorities and other anchor institutions can use action-based learning to build the skills and new ways of working.

We are talking to Universities UK and the Local Government Association to design a pilot programme of action learning from which we can all learn. More on that to follow.