Why universities are key drivers for economic development

Universities can be key economic drivers in struggling areas, writes Karen Race, deputy director of academic enterprise at Teesside University.

Four years ago the Tees Valley suffered a massive economic blow with the closure of the SSI steelworks plant, leading to the loss of 3,000 jobs. The shutting of the coke ovens and blast furnace meant the end of steel production at the 98-year-old Redcar works and there cannot be many examples of an area being hit so hard economically, and where the role of the town’s university has become so crucial going forward.

In the aftermath, former IED Patron Lord Heseltine released a report, Tees Valley: Opportunity Unlimited, which gave the region a welcome steer on where we go next and as a university we secured a seat at the top table in planning the way forward.

For example, our Pro Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Engagement Professor Jane Turner OBE DL was appointed to the Shadow Board of the South Tees Development Corporation with local authority leaders and local business people. The Board, in collaboration with the local community, set the vision of the South Tees area, focusing on economic growth and inward investment, and established the first Mayoral Development Corporation outside of London.

The loss of traditional industry, high unemployment, low skills, the lack of leadership and management expertise to tackle the productivity gap, the draining of the working-age population and the decline of the High Street – these are just some of the major issues and pressures facing the Tees Valley.

In response, we have taken on the mantle of an ‘anchor institution’ which is fundamental to supporting the economic recovery of the town and its community. All universities have a vital role to play in their local economies and in the national economy – and it is essential that institutions engage with businesses and their communities to make the most of their knowledge and expertise.

As universities we all talk about business support, or business engagement, but when the question comes up around ‘well, what do we do now?’ we have to step up. We have to prove that we can be agile, responsive and relevant, and the recognised place to go to for new knowledge that will drive innovation.

The economic and political climate puts under the spotlight the role and responsibilities of a university in helping to revive an area – and now also in responding to Brexit. So we published our own blueprint for boosting business and employment in the Tees Valley through our DigitalCity – Catalyst for Growth vision, which set out a five-point plan for the region to become recognised for “the superior digital capability of its businesses”. This includes supporting Tees Valley targets to increase start-ups by 25% and creating 25,000 jobs by 2025, and helping to close the regional and national digital skills gap which costs the UK £63 billion a year in lost GDP.

However, we have not stopped with one collaborative programme and have progressed a number of local ‘place’ initiatives which are already making an impact and can contribute to the Local Industrial Strategy. For example, Innovate Tees Valley was established to help Teesside’s SME community overcome barriers to growth to bring in new products and services and reach new markets at home and abroad. It combines the expertise of four business growth specialists – DigitalCity, North East of England Process Industries Cluster, Materials Processing Institute and Teesside University.

The Creative Fuse North East partnership, made up of Teesside, Newcastle, Northumbria, Durham and Sunderland universities, is providing SMEs and freelancers with grants and support to ensure that the region’s creative, digital and IT sector becomes more resilient, grows faster and creates more and better jobs.

Our latest initiative, which will open later this year on Darlington’s Central Park, is the £22.3m National Horizons Centre – a biomedical research, education and teaching facility to address the growth needs of some of the most rapidly expanding UK technology sectors. It will specialise in providing the full range of skills for the bio industries and in applying digital technologies to improve performance and productivity in advanced manufacturing.

For too long the Tees Valley has struggled in terms of regional economic rankings. However, the Industrial Strategy, Northern Powerhouse strategy and our own devolution deal have created a golden opportunity for us to disrupt and change our trajectory, and Teesside University is absolutely key to that journey.

In considering their contribution to the development of Local Industrial Strategies, other universities should look at what they are already doing well within their local communities and how this might form the basis of their plans. This is not necessarily a case of starting from scratch – but there is a need to make sure their support for local economies is hitting the right spots.

Alignment to other initiatives promoted in the Industrial Strategy, such as Sector Deals and Grand Challenges, may be needed to unlock national and international opportunities but consider the relevance of these to your local community.

Look at the make-up of business and industry on your doorstep, and make sure that Local Industrial Strategies fit the knowledge, expertise and resources of these. Finally, universities should be part of that bigger ‘joined up’ conversation and ensure they have a seat at the top table and align their provision to priorities outlined in strategic local economic plans.

Karen Race
Deputy director of academic enterprise at Teesside University and a member of the Institute of Economic Development.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top