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Economy / Jobs

Here's what anchor universities add to UK city economies

The concept of the “anchor university” is now well established in the UK. Many universities, particularly those with an explicitly civic mission, recognise themselves as crucial to the economic success and social well-being of their town, city or region. Consequently, they are engaging actively with the government’s agenda to rebalance the economy – responding to a concern that the UK was too dependent on the financial services sector and that wealth and power was overly concentrated in the southeast of England, around London.

Successive governments have sought to achieve this through two parallel approaches: industrial strategies intended to create the right conditions for a range of sectors to flourish; and the negotiation of “growth deals”, through which power and funding is devolved to the English regions in return for the creation of new structures for accountability such as combined authorities and metro mayors. The current government has stated its intention to bring these two strands together through building “place” into its industrial strategy.

New impetus has been given to this agenda by the recent vote to leave the European Union, which many have interpreted as a protest vote by those who have experienced the downside of globalisation. Where well-paid and high-status manufacturing jobs have moved overseas, they have often been replaced by jobs in services, many of which offer low pay and low job security for those at the bottom of the food chain.


In order to understand better how modern civic universities build stronger communities, we undertook four deep dives in different parts of England across four themes: health and wellbeing; reducing inequality; innovation; and skills. Our intention was to demonstrate, through real examples, the breadth and nature of the contribution that anchor institutions make to their cities and regions. This could then be used to inform the policy debate in England about devolution to the English regions, and the proposed reforms to the regulation of higher education and research.

We found that, although universities are often seen as national assets and the policy relating to them decided at a national level, they are nevertheless crucial to successful local growth policy and must be included in policy thought.

For example, universities are well placed to support the creation of more effective skills ecosystems at the regional level. They can do this by providing a pipeline of talent to businesses and organisations across the public, private and voluntary sectors through educational programmes. Universities also have a key role in working with businesses and organisations to shape the demand for skills which can include redesigning business processes and jobs themselves.

We looked at the skills ecosystem in Greater Manchester through the following seven lenses:

  • Skills-rich courses for diverse students;
  • Graduate recruitment;
  • Supporting people in the workforce;
  • Knowledge exchange;
  • Enterprise support and innovation;
  • Consultancy and applied research;
  • Informal activities such as facilities and wider staff involvement in the local community.

The following graphic indicates that each of Manchester’s main universities are engaged in all these activities. More detail about each of the case studies can be found in the report.

Our health case study was Bristol in the South West of England. As the following graphic shows the determinants of health and wellbeing are multifarious, covering everything from the built and natural environment through to people’s diet and work-life balance. To put it another way, there is a health-related topic – or series of topics – for virtually every university faculty.

The determinants of health and wellbeing. Source: H Barton and M Grant (2006), A health map for the local human habitat, The Journal for the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, 126 (6).

We found that the city’s main universities (University of West of England and Bristol University) are working closely with others in the region to join up the health ecosystem through networking and leadership. As well as acting in this “integrator” capacity, universities are educating health professionals and scientists and undertaking research, innovation and knowledge exchange with the aim of producing healthier communities. The scope of this activity is exceptionally broad, covering everything from applied clinical medicine, to studies on improving the urban environment through effective planning, to the development of robots that enhance patient care or assist those with permanent health conditions.

Our reports on reducing inequality and innovation similarly found that universities support these agenda in multiple ways. And they are well-placed to do yet more.

Maddalaine Ansell is chief executive of the University Alliance.

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