Monday, 7 April 2014

Schizophrenia and the Funding of Regional Universities

Hull: one of 'Wave 2 Growth Hubs'
In February the Government announced that it was offering £32m to 20 regional cities in the UK to support economic growth and development. The cities, which included areas as diverse as Milton Keynes, Hull, Stoke and Sunderland, were offered the funding in return for a promise to 'improve a serious local economic problem'.

Ellie Hamilton, the director of the 'Wave 2 Growth Hubs' project at the University of Lancaster, saw universities as key to this. 'Universities are powerful forces in helping cities to develop, through employment, attracting large student populations from the UK and overseas year on year, creating demand for products and services, supporting businesses on their technology parks and linking to business and funding opportunities worldwide.'

Hamilton went on to challenge the binary distinction between London and the rest of the UK. 'It’s not just a case of London against the rest; smaller cities must somehow hold their own as thriving centres alongside the likes of Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. Helping them to achieve this is one purpose of the second wave of City Deals funding.'

But hang on a minute. Am I the only one to see a slightly schizophrenic attitude to smaller, regional universities here? On the one hand they're being recognised as 'powerful forces in helping cities to develop'; on the other, for the past decade, they have been losing out to the larger, urban (and metropolitan) centres, such as those mentioned by Hamilton.

This has been the result of what's known euphemistically as 'concentration'. Concentration has been an inevitable result of policy moves, such as the development of Doctoral Training Centres, and the frenzied, apocalyptic madness of the RAE/REF. The Russell Group, somewhat inevitably, is all for it.

Kent has done well at both the DTCs and the last RAE, but in some cases has had to link with other regional centres (such as through the AHRC's CHASE) to compete with larger universities. It is now developing more long-term links with UEA and Essex through the Eastern ARC to further safeguard its place in this competitive, concentrated world.

Which makes it all the more galling when the Government makes the case for the economic importance of regional universities. Either you believe in them or you don't. Don't pay lip service to them; instead, make it possible, through policy change, for the smaller, regional universities to compete equitably with the urban centres on a level playing field.

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