A new industrial strategy is timely. As we prepare for Brexit, it makes good sense for the UK to work out how and where we have competitive advantage – and where investment is needed.
But if we are honest, grand plans for industrial strategy have come and gone. Successive governments have drawn them up and it is quite hard to point to long-lasting, stand-out successes.
So what’s new? What is different this time to make me optimistic? Two things. Devolution and a higher education sector more attuned to employment outcomes.
Working with industry
I believe devolved authorities and universities can – together with industry – turn a UK industrial strategy into action. Our institutions are in the right places. We have many of the right people and skills, plus the sector is better than ever at working with business and employers.
I told the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee recently we needed local frameworks to underpin a light-touch, national industrial strategy.
I said we needed skills and education to be at the strategy’s leading edge. And we needed to invest where innovation truly happened.
Ultimately innovation is local. You have a problem to fix, a group who want to solve it, and you come together in a common space to work it out.
It rarely happens by virtue of strategic missives from on-high and, frankly, flashes of genius are too unreliable and infrequent for long-term business planning.
You need to be in the room regularly. You need to have a stake in the outcome. And you need time and space to try things and innovate.
That is our experience at Coventry University. By creating the physical places for industry, business and academia to come together, we innovate. We create a place where sectoral expertise, investment and ambition can meet.
I know we are not unique. Many UK universities now share this approach.
Which is why I hope the Government recognises that universities can be implementers of their industrial strategy. We can provide a place to make it happen – with the right support.
2017 will see several metropolitan areas elect new mayors with powers devolved from Westminster. Coventry, my city and university, is part of the West Midlands Combined Authority.
New powers and resources will open up more ways for us to have impact and drive growth.
We have formed the West Midlands Combined Universities (with Birmingham City University and the University of Wolverhampton) to ally with this new metro authority. We want to give it what it needs: expertise, data, and – crucially – places to upskill our region’s people, carry out research, and partner with business to generate jobs and growth.
By extension, this autumn we joined with neighbours in the East Midlands to establish the Midlands Enterprise Universities.
In short, several industry-facing universities have already taken steps to support a regional industrial strategy.
I hope this example of local innovation, rooted in the opportunities of devolution, helps inform the national strategy.
Professor John Latham is Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of Coventry University. He is chair of the University Alliance mission group.