The current uncertainties in the UK economy do not seem to be diminishing; solutions to sluggish economic growth and rising unemployment continue to be hot topics for debate. Government attempts to boost the economy have focussed on rebalancing the economy, from a heavy reliance on the public sector and the South East to boosting private sector growth in a more balanced way across the regions.
Those occupations which rely heavily on staff with high level skills, such as those associated with knowledge-based industries, are projected to see the most significant growth in job creation by the end of the decade (see fig 1.14 in Driving economic growth).
The role of Universities will be essential to meeting the demand for higher level skills. There is some feeling that there are already too many graduates in the UK, but the reality is that in the future we will need more graduates not less. Looking at emerging economies such as China, we have seen significant growth in Higher Education. By 2020, China is expected to be producing more graduates than the USA and EU combined (see fig 1.9 in driving economic growth). So we mustn’t be complacent, in order to remain globally competitive the UK must continue to equip its population with the necessary skills.
But this is not a new revelation; most of us already know that universities are vital to developing highly skilled workers. The problem can often be that the focus is too narrowly on skill creation and there needs to be a wider recognition that there is more to universities than this. One of the important roles that Universities play is within their own regional economies. A report by IPPR North Beyond bricks and mortar boards: universities and the future of regional economic development, launched this week, examines this role in more detail and considers how recent developments in the regional infrastructure might present new challenges, and opportunities, for Universities.
The 2010 Localism Bill outlined a number of changes to the regional policy landscape. The most significant of these saw the demise of the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and their replacement with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). LEPs are intended to be more locally-owned partnerships responsible for setting the local economic agenda; driving economic growth and creating jobs. Universities have much to offer LEPs, not just in providing highly skilled graduates to the region, but in the vast experience and expertise they have to offer.
One of the key recommendations from the IPPR report is that the LEPs must ensure that they are making the best use of Universities in their region. Universities are a crucial asset to individual regions and have a fundamental role to play in driving innovation, attracting inward investment, providing civic leadership and enhancing the reputation of regions on the world stage. It is in this vein that LEPs and Universities must be fully engaged to ensure that they are creating the best possible conditions for economic success.
This week, Universities UK hosted a debate at the University of Manchester to launch the IPPR report. This event provided the opportunity for people to debate some of the issues raised by the report.
There is already much work underway in individual regions to address some of these issues and Universities UK will continue to work with the sector to identify areas of best practice, better understand the LEPs and consider how some of these challenges might be addressed.