Putting universities at the heart of economic growth

Putting universities at the heart of economic growth
Plymouth University

Wendy Purcell salutes the findings of the Witty Review

The role of universities as catalysts of economic growth and as anchors in their region has been called out loud and proud in the Witty Review.

And about time too I say – and especially pleasing for those of us who have been at the forefront of championing this vital positioning.  

The Witty Review details how universities have ‘extraordinary’ potential to enhance economic growth, creating jobs and more - with the potential to seed whole new industries.  The report powerfully demonstrates the impact and influence universities can have on the economy, and its recommendations, if enacted, could be a game changer for the UK.

Linking economic development with teaching and research

The recommendations focus on positioning economic development as the ‘third mission’ for universities, alongside teaching and research.  For me, delivering the enterprise mission by drawing on our teaching and research strengths is the way to go.  And, as the report points out, these activities reinforce each other and shouldn’t be regarded as alternatives.  So let's not make the mistake of seeing it as ‘either/or’ - let's think about this third mission as ‘both/and’, running within and alongside excellent teaching and world-class research.

The report also debunks the myth that economic growth is geographical and argues that funding should be allocated by opportunity rather than simply by postcode. Local Enterprise Partnerships and their universities would then team up with one another in novel ways that align their distinctiveness with opportunity, so in this way, we leverage the natural assets of ‘place’ and join the dots at the national level in a seamless growth agenda.

The Review notes the need to invest, by re-purposing and re-profiling spend, for example, having the Higher Education Innovation Funding reflect the value-add businesses gain by working with universities, and helping SMEs gain access to funding via the Technology Strategy Board. There's also a call out to university Business Schools to help businesses more directly and encouragement to universities to have a single portal for businesses to get in touch and access their resources.

How universities can transform the regional economy

I was pleased to act as an Expert Advisor to the Review, as I’ve experienced first-hand the power a university has to help transform its regional economy driven by the very same philosophy that has underpinned the findings.

At Plymouth University, through our enterprise agenda, we have used investment, knowledge and expertise to boost the region’s economy. Our investment of more than £300M in our campus and research projects has generated employment and created world-class facilities. They in turn are used by our many industry partners, and have helped the South West gain a reputation as a centre for excellence in a number of fields, driving growth across key industry sectors including medicine and marine renewables.

The positive impact of GAIN

Noted in the Review, our innovative public/private sector collaboration, the Growth Acceleration and Investment Network (GAIN), has more than 500 businesses with 32,000 staff and a turnover of £2.7bn. 

A key component of GAIN was the recent award of the Government’s Regional Growth Fund, following a successful £3.9 million bid led by the University with leading regional newspaper, the Western Morning News, that is expected to create around 500 jobs.

The University also manages a growing portfolio of innovation centres on behalf of Cornwall County Council, and has a UK-leading reputation for Knowledge Transfer Partnerships. We see the very real power of what this joined-up activity is achieving, not just in enhancing the University's reputation as we join the world's top 300 (Times Higher Education World University Rankings) but also in our attractiveness to students and partners. 

The Witty Review is a timely report and offers the opportunity for the higher education sector to align more closely the growth agenda and, crucially, to get the support and recognition we need to connect the teaching and research with business and the comparative assets of place.

What universities do matters – and this is another reason ‘why’.

Wendy Purcell is the Vice-Chancellor & President, Plymouth University

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