Knowledge = (economic) power: how universities can strengthen city growth - RSA

Knowledge = (economic) power: how universities can strengthen city growth


  • Enterprise
  • Education
  • Cities

In creating prosperity across the UK in coming decades, universities need to be front and centre of strategies for growth and competitiveness.

Engine Shed Bristol
Engine Shed Bristol


Universities produce research which stimulates commercial and social innovation. Universities generate spin-outs and entrepreneurs among their students, and provide adults with a range of high level skills which are increasingly in demand in the workplace.

Our university sector in the UK is a gem. With six universities ranked among the top 20 globally, the UK has the best publicly-supported system of higher education in the world. Research activities achieve significant bang for the buck against international comparison. One third of the productivity gains made between 1995 and 2004 were down to the rising number of graduates.

Our universities are a key asset to build on in the context of city growth strategies. Higher education is precisely the kind of knowledge industry that benefits from, and contributes to, the agglomeration economies that drive the logic of metro growth. Many are eager to support the social innovation districts which universities often anchor. As one investment fund told us:

“We need to co-locate corporates and startups and students. Those melting pots create the innovation. PhDs need urgency and structure and access to having their research commercially directed. Otherwise there is a tendency to go further down the rabbit hole.”

The UK has 131 universities, and 72 of them are in the 15 largest metro areas. World-class higher education is remarkably well-distributed across UK cities and regions – to some extent a legacy of the industrialists and philanthropists who endowed universities to contribute to city economies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In modern metros, our objective should be that their global competitiveness is reinforced through their metro contribution.

Launched in Cardiff on Wednesday, the panel and audience found fertile terrain for implementing the ideas in UniverCities: The knowledge to power metro growth. Supported by Universities UK and the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association, the report drew on a programme of research and analysis to recommend three areas of focus: optimising teaching and research to metro growth priorities; promoting graduate retention and utilisation in metro labour markets; and encouraging enterprising graduates, students and faculty.

In particular, the Commission recommend metros are able to use new freedoms and flexibilities to establish Metro Investment Funds for Higher Education, investing in teaching and research which aligns with economic growth priorities. Universities and metros should work together to

  • ReFreshers weeks’ offering advice, helping match graduates to employment, volunteering and housing locally.

  • Develop a centralised ‘graduate clearing’ system which pools rejected graduate recruitment applications and recycles them to local firms with vacancies.

  • Create ‘golden handcuffs’ arrangements to reward commitments from graduates to work locally, attracting subscriptions from firms to support a student loan repayment bonus, made after a loyalty period ends.

Some universities are already experimenting with their own ways nurturing enterprising minds and translating research and ideas into social and commercial innovation. For example, the University of South Wales matches all new graduates with recent alumni to serve as mentors in the world of work. Since at present “most alumni engagement involves a letter to graduates asking for a cheque to be sent back”, cultivating the social capital of this graduate network was seen as critical.

In all metros, continuing economic restructuring will mean growing demand for knowledge-intensive work. This holds for traditional economic sectors such as manufacturing and consumer services, as well as emerging sectors such as creative and digital. To maintain a competitive edge, all sectors of the economy need to add value through better applying knowledge, insights and innovations. Under every likely future scenario, work will be more precarious, requiring transferable skills and an entrepreneurial mindset. We need to help universities to take the lead, now more than ever.

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