Universities need to look outwards: their local economic and social impact really matters


The idea that universities should look outwards, and locally, is a key component of the modern university. But one that is often downplayed or even ignored.

The Conservatives’ 2019 election manifesto contained a rather surprising but welcome reference to the link between universities and the prosperity of local towns and communities. It said “we will work with local universities to do more for the education, health and prosperity of their local area” and to “strengthen universities and colleges’ civic role”.

Of course, in many ways the principal impact of universities has always been local. Many universities were created as the explicit product of civic economic and social commitment. Though in recent decades their national and international roles have tended to gain most focus.

Further thought now needs to be given to the positive role universities can play in contesting the negative effects of globalisation and the widespread economic desolation it has brought with it in some areas. Effects that have caused tens of millions of people to lose faith in the capacity of the economic and social system to address their day-to-day problems.

Such people have turned towards populist political leaders of both right and left, who speak against the status quo – as the 2016 Brexit referendum and US presidential election demonstrate. In 2019, this feeling led to the destruction of Labour’s “red wall” in England and Boris Johnson’s general election victory. Indeed, polarised societies have become a real threat to economic and social stability.

Global innovation

Economic protection and trade barriers cannot regenerate areas desolated by the decline of traditional industries such as coal, steel, shipbuilding and cars. Nor can state actions or welfare protections – save in the very short term. Instead, such areas need to rediscover their competitive advantage and prosperity.

Books like The Smartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation by Antoine van Agtmael and Fred Bakker, show how so-called “rustbelt” cities are becoming new centres of global innovation. Cities once known for steel production and heavy industry – such as Akron, Ohio and Albany, New York in the US and Eindhoven in the Netherlands – are now creating new sources of economic strength.

The book emphasises the importance of a wide variety of initiatives to promote interdisciplinary collaboration. This includes working partnerships between universities and business to find new products – along with the education of workers and the “collaborations of local and regional politicians, entrepreneurs and scientists” who can come together to achieve this.

The role of universities

Universities, working locally with creativity and innovation, offer the best hope of creating the new economic competitive advantage these places need. With their associated schools and colleges they are also best placed to provide education and training to help sustain a modern workforce and support new economic activity.

In my recent book with Ed Byrne, The University Challenge, we look at how universities can help economies and societies to adapt and respond to the grand challenges the world faces, from tackling climate change to harnessing artificial intelligence.

More systematic analysis of how best this can be achieved is now needed. And this means looking at places that are doing it right. Examples in the UK include places such as Derby, Lincoln, Northampton and Worcester – all of which have benefited from the impact of new universities.

Most of the local economic impact of universities has come as a result of the efforts of the institutions themselves. But a partnership with national and international government would help to recognise and encourage this contribution to local economic development.

Governments also need to contribute to a university’s strategic thinking to maximise the impact of university research across government and the wider society. This is best done at a local or regional level, for example through a mayor, who will usually be better able to engage than national government.

Engines for equality

Universities also have a substantial local civic role to promote an intellectually engaging climate and culture. The importance of this has risen in the increasingly polarised post-globalisation society with its disdain for facts and realities and their replacement by “fake news”. This “anti-science” culture is fundamentally harmful to the whole university ethic and is very dangerous to society.

There is no national template for this. Universities need to determine the best activity by engaging directly with the priorities and concerns of their local community.

But by engaging with local schools and colleges, helping communities become more sustainable with high quality public services and helping to build social cohesion and erode social divisions, universities can help to dismantle these divides.

Ultimately, universities need to choose between being “engines for equality” or “engines of inequality”. The choice should be clear.

Author Bio: Charles Clarke is Visiting Professor at King’s College London