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Libby Hackett
Director, University Alliance
Libby Hackett

University Alliance: "Universities are central to the economic recovery"

Authors: Libby Hackett Libby Hackett

03 November 2011

The vital role that universities play in creating economic growth is a huge focus for University Alliance. It is a fact that seems self-evident and yet as Professor Wendy Purcell highlights in our ‘Growing the Future’ publication, “this role is often underplayed, under-utilised and misunderstood.”

Growth’ has quickly become the political buzzword of 2011. During this year’s party conferences, ‘growth strategies’ were the theme of countless fringe events whilst ‘growth’ featured eight times in the Prime Minister’s address to the country in Manchester. So what is the key question that politicians are trying to answer? How do we support growth and recovery in the UK economy? 

‘Growing the future: universities leading, changing and creating the regional economy’ looks specifically at this issue. It is undeniable that universities will play a crucial role in the growth and recovery of the economy, far beyond the role played in educating our future graduates. Of course there are plenty of statistics we can use to demonstrate this. I could tell you that income from knowledge exchange activity between UK universities, business and other users increased by 35% over the last decade or how with a revenue of £23.3 billion in 2007-08, UK higher education generated over £59 billion of output to the UK economy. However, I am hoping that it will be all the more powerful to hear it from BMW, from Bournemouth County Council, from Centrica, from the North East Chamber of Commerce or from IBM. While these contributions focus on the harder edge of impact on business and strategy, others, such as the contributions from Sir Patrick Stewart and Angela Saini, author of ‘Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World’, tell a more personal tale tracking their growing understanding of the role universities play. Altogether they tell the story in a more tangible and concrete way than any set of statistics could do.

The contributions are centred around five different themes that aim to capture exactly what we mean when we talk about universities having broad and deep influence. ‘Regional leadership and ‘anchor’ capacity’ shows how universities have fundamentally shaped the character of the places where they are located. ‘Change agents: starting, growing and supporting enterprise’ demonstrates how universities are both part of a region’s history and its future. ‘Creating and diffusing research-led innovation’ discusses how universities not only generate new ideas but also translate and diffuse it so that it has real impact. ‘Knowledge workforce’ reinforces the fact that high-level skills are of crucial importance to productivity growth, particularly in a developed economy. Finally, ‘Attracting inward investment’ looks at the often overlooked role of universities as one of the UK’s major export industries, leveraging investment for the UK economy.

By telling the story of real and meaningful engagement within universities, these contributors highlight the importance of universities to our future growth in a way that the universities themselves or indeed University Alliance could not. The role universities play in economic growth and recovery remains a live issue. Our aim is not for ‘Growing the future’ to sit idle on a shelf, it is to be used to start a debate and encourage dialogue between politicians, industry and universities. Our ‘Growing the future’ event, run in partnership with The Work Foundation, is the next step in this debate. As well as showing the huge impact that universities are having, we will utilise this event to try to unlock new ideas and approaches to help the UK economy.

The project has highlighted these successful partnerships across the UK but we can’t sit still. Universities are central to the economic recovery and most importantly, are up to the challenge.

To find out more about the Work Foundation's event with the University Alliance click here