What is a university for?

Today’s papers are full of Oxford university and issues of student access.


It matters that Oxford adapts and connects. In other parts of the UK that process of connection is centuries old.


In my 20s I spent a memorable year working as acting HR manager in an engineering factory in West Cumbria. That factory, a satellite of a larger operation in London, employed 300 people. A few years later it was closed, a victim of low investment and inadequate innovation.


Yesterday I attended the launch of a book by Mike Thomas entitled Higher Education and Regional Growth – local contexts and global challenges. To some this might seem a dry subject. Yet when I opened the book I read a story about new hope and impetus for a remote part of England that means a lot to me.


Mike Thomas is Vice Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire. He explained the three approaches to regional growth:


One is the top-down kind. This tries to identify the skills needs of the future for the industry of the future and is rarely successful. Every government attempts this. Most fail to achieve much.


The second is the ‘co-operative model’ as implemented in Preston where there is a concerted effort to buy locally and encourage local businesses to grow through meeting local needs. This approach has paid off in Preston and the surrounding area as businesses have grown and thrived.


In the third model the health service, police and educational institutions and the local authorities and elected mayors all work together with businesses and local groups. They break down barriers; target improvements in troubled districts and generate renewal of both infrastructure and confidence.


Universities in Germany are much more likely to be acting as a hub to this activity, providing skills and direct demand for employees and suppliers.


The book describes the part universities and colleges have played in renewal. The University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) runs a successful academy for secondary pupils and reaches out to primary schools. It runs degree apprenticeships and one degree programme where students only have to pay one year of fees and then continue while enjoying a salary from a local employer.


We need our universities to think and act in this way. But how do we measure them?


The measurement of universities is narrowing. In some ways that is healthy. If students are taking out five figure loans they are entitled to know where the teaching is excellent. But if we start assessing universities solely on the earnings of their alumni we have betrayed the real value and values of education. Prime Minister take note; universities are key to regional growth and regional growth, or the lack of it, was highly correlated with votes for or against Brexit.