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Understanding Devolution - implications for universities

Universities UKIt was a pleasure to present the ongoing work of the Chancellor's Commission at the 20th October event convened by Universities UK. However, possibly of greater relevance, is how the attendance of 40-50 delegates from around 30 HEIs evidences this topic's increasing importance in University policy agendas.

The key messages that came out of the afternoon sessions for me can be summarised as:-

  1. Universities need to be more involved in 'devo-deals' - i.e. the ongoing negotiations between government and local leadership teams to devolve and decentralise some national powers and resources. Up to now, these have been too much a conversation between central government and local authority leaders. There has been a presumption by the university sector that HE teaching and research agendas are 'out-of-scope' of these deals. However, even if this presumption is correct, building credible local leadership teams requires engagement and positive commitment of universities and other 'anchor institutions' (and a welcoming inclusiveness from the local government community) because...
  2. The local context in which universities operates is changing profoundly over 2015-20. 'Devo-deals' will be accompanied by the intention to re-localise business rates (as part of a profound reform and continuing reductions in local government financing); and a range of other global, national and local societal pressures. Universities need an acute and tailored understanding of this context, and a strategy for engaging and assisting to shape it. And...
  3. With HEFCE forecasting HE capital investment of over £15bn during this parliament, Universities are increasingly prominent parts of the 'public (e)state' - especially where those investments are located. They will benefit from a supportive local context (in a number of domains) to deliver these investments well.

Both Universities UK and the Local Government Association (LGA), who were in attendance, agreed some further collaborative work nationally to support these points. But they also both recognised that the main drivers of these trends would have to be local - between universities, local councils, and other 'anchor' partners.

There is a general resonance of these conclusions with the emerging direction of Commission findings. Clearly, our challenges are understanding this in a UoW, Coventry, Warwickshire, and 'Midlands Engine' context. However, we should also take the opportunity to contribute to national thinking and practice where possible.

In this respect the Commission may be thought of as one illustration of the desirability for universities and local leadership 'partners' to have an 'independent' mechanism for periodically reviewing and refreshing the relationships, roles and responsibilities of universities to 'places'.

The commitment to this type of mediating and analytic device on university-place ambitions does imply an acceptance by universities of more than an 'incidental' approach to local impact. Models of 'civic university' may work well when an institution is clearly associated with one principal place - through, for instance, a city centre location. However, more nuanced models will be required for institutions like UoW, lying on the boundaries of civic places - in our case Coventry-Warwickshire, West and East/South Midlands, and arguably some definitions of England's North-South.

The current national-local enhanced devolution negotiations are intrinsically 'messy' - with variable geographies, settlements and multi-level governance and politics. However, there is still much that can and will be achieved by university-council-partner collaboration. It may be helpful if national, local and university incentives for these purposes are more aligned and even strengthened (e.g. at the spending review and 2016/17 budget).

There is an opportunity for considering and discussing these issues further both on these web pages (please leave a comment below), and at the Commission's National Policy Symposium on 4th November. Please complete the online form if you wish to attend, or contact Jo Thomas at jo.thomas@warwick.ac.uk.

The Universities UK event has made a convincing case for universities to put considerable effort into understanding devolution. The Chancellor's Commission will seek to assist UoW, local and regional partners take that forward in a Coventry, Warwickshire and Midlands context; and to contribute to evolving national thinking on these important issues.

David Marlow
October 2015