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HEi-think: Universities can help knit together devolution and the industrial strategy

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus, outlines the arguments in a new report calling for local authorities and agencies to work with modern universities to help unify efforts behind the government’s devolution agenda and industrial strategy.

The government's industrial strategy green paper, launched in January (see HEi-know Briefing Report 334), was clear that the strategy should be rooted in place. At MillionPlus we agree.

Our new research report, 'Universities, devolution and the industrial strategy: piecing the jigsaw together', tracks the process of devolution across England and maps out how modern universities can help ensure that the devolution agenda and industrial strategy knit together to form a cohesive whole.

As key anchor institutions, modern universities are a vital part of their local economies. As large organisations in their own right, they create jobs and provide graduate employment. But also, with their long and successful track
record in engaging with business, SMEs and public services, they can provide the necessary support to make both devolution and the industrial strategy a success.

At present, complexity is one of the defining characteristics of devolution in England; a patchwork of local governance and funding arrangements coupled with a wide variety of newly devolved responsibilities across combined authorities covering hugely contrasting geographies. Add to this, cuts to local authority budgets, and uncertainty over EU funding and business rate reform, and the challenges faced by combined authorities begin to mount up. An Office for English Devolution, in addition to coordinating and brokering deals, would ensure the whole country benefits from devolution in those key strategic areas where the agenda has
progressed swiftest.

Combined authorities should also look to make the most of their local modern universities by engaging with them from the outset in collaboration on strategies to deliver on their new responsibilities, as well as drawing on their deep knowledge and world-leading research in key areas such as health, enterprise and innovation, and public services. Similarly, prospective combined authorities will find a wealth of expertise in their local modern universities to support the development of devolution bids.

At the national level, if the right investments are made, the industrial strategy should aid combined authorities in making a success of the new dynamic in local government. The new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is rightly focused on technologies, but should also ensure regional and local development to spread innovation around the country. To complement this, a new fund for applied and translational research would promote innovative collaborations between universities and businesses, SMEs and public services. With their strengths in business support, strategic expertise, and high-quality research, modern universities can be the catalyst in delivering economic growth while boosting employment, by bringing cutting edge research to market.

Finally, modern universities play an integral role through collaborating with businesses to provide education and training that meet their needs. Successive governments have used tax credits to incentivise businesses, particularly SMEs, to invest in research. The same approach should be taken with continuous professional
development, to encourage take up of more part-time and work-based courses, including employer-sponsored degrees and masters level degree apprenticeships. There is also a strong case to provide new funding for those not in the workplace to update their skills.

The industrial strategy makes clear that 'the full involvement of innovators, investors, job creators, workers and consumers ...is the only basis on which we can produce an enduring programme of action'.

Placing modern universities at the heart of local and national responses is paramount to ensuring success across the country. Their expertise and experience in bringing key stakeholders together, combined with high-quality education, training and research capabilities, will provide both the bedrock and the catalyst for local
and national growth.

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