Professor Julian Beer, Pro Vice-Chancellor at Birmingham City University

George Osborne heralded a ‘devolution revolution’ at the Spending Review and Autumn Statement on Wednesday 25 November, intended to ‘spread economic power and wealth’ and ‘invest in our long term infrastructure’. The five devolution deals so far announced – the Liverpool City RegionNorth East, Sheffield City Region, Tees Valley and West Midlands Combined Authority – build upon a foundation of city deals, growth deals, combined authorities, enterprise zones and university enterprise zones (UEZs). Further deals will be announced in the coming months including, we hope in the Midlands, the East Midlands deal to bring to life the Midlands Engine for Growth.

On Friday 27 November, at the University of Birmingham, the Rt Hon Sajid Javid, MP and Secretary for Business, Innovation and Skills and Ministerial Champion to the Midlands Engine, launched The Midlands Engine for Growth: prospectus – the first of its kind in the country. The prospectus outlines what we are going to do under devolution.

So where do universities fit in to this complex and fast-moving policy landscape?

The Midlands Engine for Growth prospectus, echoed elsewhere by many commentators, outline various areas where we as universities can play a significant role according to the mission of individual institutions for example, in:

  • Regeneration;
  • Skills;
  • Innovation; and
  • Business support.

Indeed, I presented recently at a UUK workshop along with others on the role of universities in these areas within devolution – and our impact can be significant. Universities have direct and indirect effects in the economic, cultural and social spheres in the towns and cities in which we live. They contribute billions of pounds to the local economies and directly employ nearly 380,000 people throughout the UK (and are often one of the largest employers in the area) and many hundreds of thousands more indirectly.

While much of the focus in many of the devolution deals is upon infrastructure, without focussing on the softer aspects of skills and innovation, the potential for a sustainable and more productive growth and inclusion is somewhat diluted. The Government’s own report, Fixing the Foundations: creating a more prosperous nation, emphasised the need to address the national skills gap, at all levels, while the same issues at local and regional levels were top priorities for almost all of the recent submissions from potential combined authorities. However, while there is almost universal consensus of a problem that needs solving, there are few signs of original responses to issues that have held back UK competitiveness and innovative performance for decades.

The heart of the problem is a fundamental mismatch between the demand and supply sides of our national systems. These manifest themselves for example, in hard-to-fill vacancies and skills shortages, while at the same time many in our society are either unemployed or underemployed.

Systemic problems like this demand systemic solutions and new models to transcend the barriers and rigidities, along with the fragmentation of interests, which characterise our current systems. Universities have a pivotal role to play in this, through their relationships with key players in the skills system, especially at local levels – as well as meeting the needs of employers within the communities they inhabit. These can be developed and combined as the basis of new local learning and innovation ecosystems, engaging learning providers, employers and other stakeholders in a shared solution.

The devolution agenda creates new possibilities for developing such eco-systems at city-region levels, providing permeable structures for bringing the key players together to align and shape the demands for and supply of skills.  In Birmingham, we are in discussions for the establishment of a Virtual Polytechnic partnership which seeks to address this bringing together the City’s universities and colleges, Chamber of Commerce, local employers (both large and small) and civic development agencies to provide best-in-class learning resources, personalised development pathways and talent brokering services to create the highly skilled workforce of the future.

Devolution must be about real partnerships, bringing together all the assets of a locality, to play to strengths and generate improvements for all. Universities are core assets within their environs and working together, both universities and other local anchor partners can be stronger.

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