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How universities can support local businesses and communities
The pandemic has provided an urgent lesson in the value of cooperation and partnership. The state, the private sector and voluntary groups all rely on the success of the others to prosper.
Collaboration will be more important than ever as we begin to focus on recovery over the coming years. This will be crucial, in particular, when it comes to helping local areas most affected by economic disruption and loss of jobs. The question is where the impetus for this collaboration will come from, in what form and when.
This is where the UK’s network of universities should have a natural role. They have contacts across government, business, voluntary sectors and their local communities. They can provide the leadership and motivation to keep different groups talking, learning from each other and working together for a broad common purpose.
Bradford is a classic example of a metropolitan district where there are stark inequalities in terms of wealth, health and opportunities between different parts of the city. It is a de-industrialised city that has been left behind in terms of investment into transport infrastructure and new industrial development, and has been hit hard by COVID-19 and the emerging aftermath.
At the same time, Bradford is the UK’s youngest city, with the highest proportion of under 16s. It is also one of the most ethnically diverse, with a strong foundation of family-run firms and a strong entrepreneurial spirit. However, for all the potential of a city like Bradford, start-ups remain fragile and in need of nurturing to support development, sustained growth and prosperity.
The University of Bradford has been in contact with 10,000 regional small and medium-sized businesses about their experiences since last summer, finding out more about the local environment for doing business.
Carrying out research like this is one way the university is taking a central role in helping the city recover and move forward. What’s more, the initial findings have aided in the work and strategic planning of the Bradford Economic Recovery Board, which I chair on behalf of Bradford District Council. The board was set up to stress test the district’s economic strategy and develop a new plan to help businesses grow, retrain unemployed people and attract investment in infrastructure and talent.
Universities are impartial and apolitical, which makes them ideal for leading this kind of community partnership initiative. They are already, or should be, at the heart of regional networks and able to build and extend partnerships on behalf of communities. For example, the University of Bradford’s networks led to the chair of Tesco plc, the chair of Yorkshire Building Society and the chief executive of a major charity becoming involved with the Bradford Economic Recovery Board.
Universities are major employers and cultural centres. The contact points between universities and their local regions are greater in number and breadth – and arguably also in importance – than any other kind of organisation. That means they have a store of understanding of local character and needs, as well as the ability to coordinate local development opportunities and initiatives.
Across the UK, universities have found ways to help businesses and communities with recovery. Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen has offered 400 funded short course places to help people strengthen their business offerings and develop new skills.
Kingston University has set up a new partnership with the local chamber of commerce to help local businesses overcome their challenges. The Open University provides free access to 950 short courses. At the University of Reading, locals are being given slots with staff to discuss how the university could better support enterprise and community groups.
A number of universities have opened up their facilities to the NHS to help fast-track the training of new recruits. Many have volunteering services where students are matched up with the needs of local community organisations for help with IT and digitisation of services, or provide group project opportunities to work on real, business saving ideas.
Universities will only become accepted as having a genuine regional role when communities have seen and felt the results of initiatives like this. That means commitment to delivery over the long term, and taking responsibility for outcomes together with other partners in local government and business.