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How can we build purposeful and productive partnerships for inclusive growth?


I was delighted to take part in the IED’s recent webinar on ‘How can economic development professionals work most effectively with Higher Education institutions to drive growth?’ For me, there are three issues at the heart of this question.

Firstly, what does it mean to work together to create the conditions for economic and social prosperity? We know that universities are critical anchor institutions – we are providers of skills, knowledge, research, technology and innovation – and these are the core ingredients for inclusive growth. But for this to be truly effective we have to address the collaboration gap and try to ensure that we create purposeful and productive partnerships so that universities, business, public sector and economic development professionals work collectively to improve the economy and the communities they serve. 

Secondly, and following on from the first point, how do we address this collaboration gap? First, by making the case for a stronger alignment between universities, business and the public sector. In order for us to do this we need to create a more inclusive approach to partnerships and engagement. We do that by harnessing the talent, innovation and place. We talk a lot about cities, urban economies and place, but we have to create those collaborative spaces so that we are able to co-locate stakeholders to try to develop new channels for knowledge exchange and integration. It is not enough to just exchange knowledge; that knowledge has to be embedded in order for us to be able to build dynamic capability. Then we also need to try to create more visible pathways – the different pathways that contribute to economic development and potential investment.

Thirdly, there is a question about application and integration to support inclusive growth. By alignment I mean how universities, business and the public sector come together – this can be complex, but they do provide us with new and exciting opportunities. The past year has demonstrated our ability to collectively harness that knowledge, talent and skills, and to try to facilitate and embed transformational change that makes a measurable difference. So I am making the case for multi-disciplinary challenges that allow us to work together to embed these in the fabric of our region and partners. Only if we do that will we address the question and create the conditions for collaborative innovation.

Our approach

At the University of York, we are committed to ensuring that as an anchor institution we shape, influence and contribute to the pressing economic and social issues we face locally and nationally. Lord Kerslake makes an important point when he argued “the deep economic and social changes that are happening in Britain today have, alongside Brexit, made the civic role of universities even more vital to the places they are located. Universities have an irreplaceable and unique role in helping their host communities thrive and their own success is bound up with the success of the places that gave birth to them”. 

We are grasping the nettle at the University of York by enacting our commitment to public good that is critical by design underpinned by our values and characterised by our inspiring research that engages with global issues which affect our region today, tomorrow and in the future. But what does that mean in practise? If we are genuinely going to deliver purposeful and productive partnerships for inclusive growth, then we need to do the following.

• Play a critical and prominent civic role in the region by putting place and region at the heart of our activities, and by using our research and expertise to work together with our partners to improve the lives of our communities and contributing to equity and substantiality of our city. 

• Build positive and productive partnerships to drive creativity and innovation, harnessing and building networks and encouraging ambition and innovation in the ways we create, share and apply knowledge.

• Magnify our impact through local and global engagements and partnerships in research, education, creativity and innovation that all mutually inform each other.

• Play a central role in developing an ambitious enterprise ecosystem with York and North Yorkshire, the success of which will be reflected in increases in all relevant economic and social indicators and for us to be acknowledged as an entrepreneurial and innovative university.

Overcoming barriers

There are number of barriers and challenges cited in building partnerships and the role of HE. These tend to focus on the lack of consistent and integrated collaborations with business and industry locally and nationally, the lack of inclusive community engagement with socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, and the lack of agility, and processes can be slow, which makes it difficult for our partners to engage.

Despite the challenges, we have a moment-in-time opportunity to create impact by contributing to our region through evidenced-based research that informs, disrupts and effects change. Our partnership and engagement strategy is designed to ensure we create the conditions for interdisciplinary engagement which informs and develops research, industry and community partnerships regionally and nationally. Our mission facilitates knowledge exchange and integration to develop evidence-led research solutions that will create economic, social and cultural impacts which align with the University’s aspirations for public good, and an integration of interdisciplinary research and engagement. 

Underpinning all of this is a community of practise working together to make a measurable difference. What Covid-19 has shown us is what can happen when communities work together, the shared purpose of working to revitalise the economic landscape and our communities – and let us not forget the social and cultural landscape as these are equally important for driving innovation and growth. We have shown we can be agile, we can be inclusive, and we can be entrepreneurial. 

We all have an instrumental role not simply to inform but to engage so we create genuine economic and social prosperity, and in doing so we create a culture that makes partnerships everyone’s business.

Professor Kiran Trehan is Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Partnerships and Engagement at the University of York, and a member of the Institute of Economic Development. Professor Trehan was a panellist on the IED’s ‘How can economic development professionals work most effectively with Higher Education Institutions to drive growth?’ webinar on 2nd February. Watch again here.

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