UK universities have, in many ways, moved on from the old, disengaged “ivory tower” perceptions of the past. In many towns and cities, the role of a modern university encompasses much more than exclusively being an institution for education and research. Universities are large, locally-embedded establishments, and often bring a positive economic, cultural and social impact to their home city: so much so, that the concept of UK universities as ‘anchor institutions’ is becoming increasingly important.
Coined in the US, the term “anchor institution” describes a nonprofit institution – often in unsettled or deprived areas – that can bring significant socioeconomic benefits to their local community by providing employment and collaboration opportunities and fostering existing initiatives: the most common of which are universities and hospitals.
Speaking at Westminster Higher Education Forum’s Seminar on ‘The future for UK science and innovation funding and policy – Brexit, the HE and Research Bill and supporting disruptive innovation‘, Faye Taylor, Head of Programmes at University Alliance, (the UK body responsible for representing regional British universities), outlined the benefits of optimising the anchor institution role of UK universities. Recent industrial strategies place an increased emphasis on the importance of local and regional socioeconomic growth. In the UK, many universities are already a stabilising community “anchor” during economic turbulence, and there are many social benefits for the local population in maximising engagement and collaboration with academic institutions. In addition – and importantly for scientists – placing universities at the heart of the local community could be a positive move for research and science innovation.
Firstly, universities can provide an opportunity to rejuvenate local innovation and business in areas that have had a historic decline in industry. In Teesside, the DigitalCity initiative has grown out of the reputation of Teesside University for computing and digital media. Since its establishment in 2004, the DigitalCity “supercluster” has had a significant positive impact on the socioeconomic status of the region by creating business and providing employment in the digital world. For researchers, these specialist hubs can also provide novel research and innovation opportunities. Clustering together businesses and research groups founded in a similar scientific discipline provides an ideal setting for collaboration and novel approaches to shared research objectives. At a time when international collaboration might be more at risk, turning attention to the opportunities available closer to home could be a rewarding strategy. Furthermore, a reputation for excellence in a specific stream is more likely to attract highly-regarded researchers, from across the UK and internationally, to further enhance the research quality and prosperity of the region.
Secondly, encouraging collaboration between local science-based business and universities provides new opportunities for researchers and STEM-based start-ups. Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency, is a government organisation that promotes and funds science and technology innovation that is likely to grow the UK economy. Of the funding provided by Innovate UK, 20% of all collaborative grants go to research organisations, and a number of these projects are funded in conjunction with Research Councils. Collaborations between novel academic-based research and businesses that want to optimise new science and technology can provide researchers with alternative funding options and promote multi-disciplinary research. Furthermore, both the local and national economy can benefit from the commercialisation of research, and this emphasises the potential for universities to place themselves as “anchors” in the local community.
Of course, the primary role of universities is not to pioneer local development and economic rejuvenation. Nonetheless, in a potentially turbulent time for academic research, reviewing the wider role of universities in their local community is perhaps important. For researchers, capitalising on the anchor institution concept makes sense, and could provide alternative funding sources, the opportunity for scientific and business collaboration, and enhance the standing of scientific research in the local community. At a time when economic growth is being promoted at a local level, it is also important that localised scientific endeavour is not overlooked as being ‘second-rate’ in favour of global collaborations. Historically, universities might have been used as a marker of regional prosperity: now, we have the opportunity to use the status of academic institutions and importance of scientific research to place universities at the heart of the region.
Helen Robertson is a PhD student at University College London, focusing on the evolutionary history and genetics of a group of enigmatic marine worms – the Xenacoelomorpha. She tries to fit in science writing around her lab work, and is a keen long-distance runner.