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HEi-think: Regionally engaged universities stand to gain from industrial strategy

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John Lonsdale, Director of Innovation and Enterprise at the University of Central Lancashire, assesses the opportunities for universities in the government’s new industrial strategy.

 

The Industrial Strategy green paper (see HEi-know Briefing Report 334)is the culmination of a number of policy pushes over the past six years, with various attempts made to address regional issues, productivity and skills gaps. In addition, numerous reports have highlighted the increasingly important role of universities as anchor institutions in their local economies.

First impressions of the green paper suggest a timely attempt to bring the various strands together. This is certainly welcome, as to date many HE institutions, along with local government teams, have struggled to track the huge numbers of initiatives, with their associated conferences and briefings that we have seen in recent years. Looking to China and other rapidly developing countries, it is clear that overall government coordination brings dividends.

The basics seem to make sense from a University’s perspective: more money for science, research and innovation; focus on skills, and so on. But perhaps the real opportunities are there for those universities which fully engage in their locality and region. Universities, especially those that have targeted their attention on addressing local skills and innovation challenges, are particularly well positioned to take advantage of the ‘new’ opportunities outlined in the green paper, as too are those who are serious about providing support to SMEs. 

Thankfully the green paper attempts to balance centralised planning and support with local strengths.  For example, there has been a strong push at a national level to generate and demonstrate research impact, to widen participation in higher education and to encourage smart specialisation. At the same time, there has been an increasing demand pull for university involvement in place-based innovation as set out in Local Enterprise Partnerships Strategic Economic Plans, and to take a shared responsibility for the management of local assets as further austerity measures kick in affecting the capacity of other local partners.

However, there is still a tricky discussion to be had regarding the priority sectors and technologies. For example, creative industries don’t feature much in the paper, and it will be interesting to see if they can take advantage of ‘sector deals’ and supply chain development in the same way as more traditional ‘technology’ companies. The strategy also needs to be responsive and flexible, to deal with emerging sectors and services which, enabled by the internet and other technologies, will continue to appear with startling regularity.

Given the importance of advanced engineering and manufacturing within Lancashire and its status as a high productivity sector, UCLan continues to work with the Local LEP to help ‘cultivate a world-leading sector’. The University is using a £40 million investment in engineering to take a leading role in the development of a national strategy for the exploitation of graphene into the aerospace sector on behalf of the Aerospace Technology Institute.  The document identifies both a technical and industrial supply chain development road map for the UK and is a good case study for the ‘new’ Industrial Strategy approach. Research is vitally important, but the strategy suggests that translating that research into new products, technologies, productivity and jobs is just as important, as we try to shake off historical accusations of producing great ideas that others then commercialise.

In the skills area, universities like UCLan are already gearing up for the opportunities, working closely with employers to identify skills gaps, launching new degree apprenticeship programmes, and launching ERDF business support programmes to address growth and competitiveness issues on our businesses. Lines are starting to be blurred and FE and HE partners work more closely together to address skills issues in their regions.  UCLan for example is looking at adding more vocational options in its undergraduate provision, offering students the chance to graduate with a rounder set of skills and even better job prospects.

The Industrial Strategy and the greater co-ordination of initiatives it brings is welcomed.  HEIs who are already engaged and are active in their regional base look set to gain most from it.

 

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