On 8 December 2016 I attended the Westminster Higher Education Forum Keynote Seminar on ‘Universities in their local economies: devolution, skills development and supporting entrepreneurship’.
Within the context of the deepening devolution debate, proposed reforms to the Higher Education and Research Bill, the introduction of a new regulatory framework – the Teaching Excellence Framework – and Britain’s exit from the EU, there will be a lot of change in the HE sector over the coming years. A central point of discussion at the seminar was how universities and local authorities can work together to develop regional economies; Kevin Richardson, local growth consultant with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), focused on this area.
|Westminster Policy Forum Seminar at Manchester Town Hall
As it stands the UK is at a critical point when it comes to productivity. Levels of business investment in research and development are notably low, particularly in comparison to competitors in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Inter-regional economies are also radically different and there are huge disparities in average incomes – for example, Manchester South West is nearly 19% richer than Manchester Central (and both are lower than the national average).
With cuts to local authority budgets, universities are often the most successful business in any given region – indeed, HEFCE predicts that over this current four-year period universities will invest nearly £18billion in capital (mostly on infrastructure). As a result, we can see a top-down policy push encouraging institutions to get involved in local initiatives, such as Enterprise Partnerships, University Technical Colleges and Degree Level Apprenticeships.
There has been a move towards risk-based finance, where one can make use of the finance offered to you on the basis that you deliver the agreed outputs, but if you fail to do so you pay the financer back in full. If universities have a good project, the ability to deliver and evidence of demand, there is an assortment of capital finance initiatives available. For example, a university received an investment of £75million from a pension fund, another received £15million to build a new engineering centre and another received more than £30million from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).
The government intends that by 2020 local authorities will retain 100% of business rates collected in their area (taxes raised locally). Therefore universities should focus on the decentralisation of finance, as we can assume that these financial opportunities will only grow.
Written by Ellen Logan, Higher Education Services Executive for Prospects/HECSU