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Language differences must not undermine real strategic partnership with higher education


I have worked in the local government sector at parish, borough and county level, and was also a member of the South East regional assembly, and latterly I now have a Knowledge Exchange and Enterprise development role within higher education. In many respects, therefore, I am in a fairly unique position having spent the majority of my career within the economic development profession but also the last two-and-a-half years at a university, to offer a perspective on how economic development professionals can work with higher education institutions (HEIs) to drive growth.

From the HE perspective, what I want most from our local authority partners and our local economic development colleagues, is understanding that decision-making timescales for both sectors have to be taken into account when establishing and building relationships. We also need to work together to overcome language and cultural differences. Economic development and higher education talk a different language, and part of the role that I always see for myself is ‘translating’ between the two sectors. For me, if we could crack that, it would be much easier.

What we absolutely do need to recognise is the contribution and scale of HE in local place – as an anchor institution, as an employer, as an economic driver – but also the civic university agenda (and the ‘town and gown’ aspect that is particularly important). So for me the real question is how do we make sure that economic development and HEIs actually make that connection, and how do we achieve real strategic partnership? For example, universities support really important skills agendas, the transmission of knowledge to the local community, as well as the whole inward investment journey.

It is also not just about saying ‘we do this, you do that’. At Royal Holloway University we recently launched an enterprise taskforce and reinvigorated our enterprise, skills and entrepreneurship activity to help innovators within our local community. That community can be quite broad for us, with west London being such a significant economic driver for UK plc. We are located close to London Heathrow, near to a three-site enterprise zone, and are also adjacent to the Thames Valley. So we look at the global firms and technology companies that are there, and ask how we can assist in supporting their technology solutions, and support challenge-led research opportunities. It does come back to how we can build those strategic partnerships but also, as a locality, as a place, are we all actually going in the right direction?

A related question, from an economic development perspective, is how we retain talent, skilled individuals and entrepreneurs, people locally. It may be easier to retain people in some areas than it is in areas such as west London, purely because of cost of living. So it is about how do we retain that expertise, how do we share that, and how do we encourage graduates to establish businesses locally? How do we make sure that we as universities are providing incubation, business validation, and bring the venture capital and private equity money into that? That is really exciting, and with business emerging from lockdown 3.0 we anticipate a greater number knocking on our door asking for our contribution to their growth opportunities. 

Finally, every HEI has a USP, it has got something different that it can add, so it is not about competing rather it is about working together. It is also about what the collective adds to that greater piece: whether that is a Covid response, a Brexit response, or the brave new world of Industry 4.0, 5.0 and beyond to where we are now going. We do need to be aware of those different time cycles we are working to, but most of all let us keep working together to support local authority small growth agendas, HEI knowledge exchange frameworks, and wider place, society, inclusion and economic prosperity ambitions.

Mark Pearson is Head of Knowledge Exchange and Enterprise at Royal Holloway University of London, and a member of the Institute of Economic Development. Mark was also 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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