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A perspective from both sides: how can universities get more involved in economic development?


The discussion around collaboration between economic development professionals in local government and universities is one that fascinates me: primarily because I have worked on both sides. Whilst I am now Economic Development Manager at Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, I was previously a sessional lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University which I did alongside studying for my PhD. As such, I come at this from quite a few different angles, but I think there are three key points.

Firstly, the role of universities as anchor institutions is a really pivotal, critical one in terms of how institutions behave within a local region. Obviously, there is a lot of attention on combined and local authorities and how we act, but this extends to other anchor institutions and how we can demonstrate we are working together collaboratively, embedding best practice and bringing communities along with us. Sharing resources to maximise impact is absolutely key, particularly on wealth building and procurement. 

Secondly, and practically, undertaking joint and collaborative research around current and regional issues, particularly where we can bring national and international networks together to explore approaches in other places and how we can replicate that locally. Understanding how things work elsewhere, and the learnings we may apply to solve local challenges, is a key area that universities can support. For example, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority have done some exciting work with the University of Liverpool around what our long-term social value vision is, the different trajectories we might take and if, ultimately, we are doing the right things to help us achieve that vision. 

Thirdly, developing and inspiring future generations of economic development professionals: not just taking on students but asking if the skills students are developing match future economic development needs, and also the economic development profession. The need to really embed that thinking of economic development and how it impacts us across a significant number of courses, research and sharing work experience opportunities is key as economic development is so broad and multi-disciplinary. It impacts so many different areas that universities touch upon with their students: from business, economics, geography, civil structural engineering, public policy, culture and education, it hits all of these different things.

Raising the profile of economic development as a career option early on, and engaging and developing students by providing a clear professional pathway, is something the IED is well placed to support. The Institute already has student membership for full or part-time students working towards a qualification in a relevant discipline but who are not in employment, as well as the Economic Development Graduate Experience programme, but we can build on this through even deeper relationships with universities.

If we start embedding that thinking within the learning that those students are doing in the HE environment and exposing them to the reality of ‘What happens when we don’t have great culture in a place – how does that erode social collaboration and community spirit?’ and ‘What does that mean for economic development – who are the institutions that do something about it?’, then the profession will be in a stronger place.

Dr Joanne Leek is Economic Development Manager at Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, and a Director/member of the IED. She was a panellist on the IED’s webinar, Levelling Up: How can universities get involved in economic development, skills and innovation under a local devolution model? on 28th April. Watch again here.