The university effect
21 November 2011
By Iain Stewart
Universities have a far greater impact on local regions than simply equipping the local workforce with new skills. Impacts range from increasing local employment, to students moving into residential areas, to boosting nightlife, to altering the whole image of a town, according to ESRC-funded research. But despite the benefits of increased employment and consumption levels, there are both 'winners' and 'losers' when a university comes to town.
Universities do not necessarily change the overall levels of inequality and relative disadvantage in their region. "Efforts by universities to widen participation and tackle social inequality in local regions tend to provide social mobility opportunities for the few without necessarily altering patterns of inequality that affect the many," explains the Open University’s Professor John Brennan, who led the research project. However, there were substantial differences between individual universities and individual regions. The findings are based on four case studies into the social and cultural impact of universities on their local regions.
The universities engaged with their local populations in a variety of ways, including improving the skills of local workforces, providing employment opportunities, supporting the transfer of knowledge to businesses and public sector organisations, raising aspirations and providing opportunities for social mobility.
However, universities were sometimes regarded by local stakeholders as ‘creaming off’ the most able students, and in less prosperous regions providing 'exit routes' for them to move to other parts of the country. Wider patterns of inequality were reinforced in areas with several higher education providers.
"Different universities had distinctive views on their role in tackling inequalities and disadvantage," Professor Brennan points out. "One university saw its role as long term and inter-generational, seeking to be open to all and broadening its notion of 'access' beyond course enrolments to include the sharing of knowledge, expertise and facilities with many groups and organisations beyond the university. This contrasted with the tension we found in some universities between reaching out to socially disadvantaged groups and maintaining or building a positive image of the university."
Other key findings include:
- Universities contribute to improving the skills of the workforce, both local and national, but the impact on the local labour force in some regions is more apparent in the public sector (e.g. police , health , education) than in the private sector.
- Universities have a strategic impact on their regions through development opportunities with agencies concerned with regional regeneration.
- Universities can also have a significant impact on the ‘image’ of an area or region, encouraging both investment and mobility of labour.
- Universities, through the presence of students, have a significant impact on local cultural ventures, from nightlife to the local music and art scenes.
- Relationships of trust and mutual understanding between universities and their local communities are important but can take a long time to establish. The challenge is to develop relationships from which all sides gain.
"Our study showed that universities are embedded in their regions but that this integration with the local area can take a variety of forms and sits alongside national and international roles. Indeed, it is through their potential for assisting in 'opening up' regions to wider global interests that universities may make their most significant long-term impact," concludes Professor Brennan.