The HE Debate: Where next for...anchor universities?

13 Jan 2015

Shirley Atkinson, Interim Vice Chancellor, University of Sunderland

It is with some interest that I read an article recently referring to 'real research' as opposed to the alternative of 'applied research'. It caused me to wonder how an institution like mine, which is undoubtedly an anchor institution in the region with its well-regarded and successful track record of applied research, could so easily be dismissed. It begs the question once more of what we value in our higher education system and the complexity of how individual institutions deliver impact and value to our students, our communities, and our local, regional and national economies.

As far back as 2008, the University reinforced, through its corporate plan, the expected sentiments on delivering excellent student experience and support, undertaking world leading research, and curricula informed by research and practice. But perhaps rather uniquely we placed significant emphasis on understanding and describing how we would go about delivering our strategy and objectives. We acknowledged that as an institution we believed the essence of our delivery could be described as ' collaborating, innovating and place shaping'.

We find in today's context this remains as authentic and well founded as in 2008. Much of our success as an innovative accessible institution, with remarkable local impact and significant global reach, is because of how we set out to deliver our strategy rather than what we intended to deliver.

We can count our successes in terms of significant increases in joint working both at home and overseas for the delivery of teaching and research projects and an increasingly buoyant and diverse student community. We also enjoy active involvement in the Local Enterprise Partnership and the city's Economic Leadership Board and are founding members of the Sunderland Business Group.  We are a key partner working alongside some of the most significant businesses in the North East economy including Nissan and more recently Hitachi. Our key programme areas are supported by industry boards to ensure the curricula and product design match the expectations of employers and professional bodies. Our approach to business in the region has been to assess how we can help; a model of knowledge exchange rather than knowledge transfer. This collaborative open and honest dialogue with partners and stakeholders continues to characterise the activities of the institution.

On innovation, alongside our world leading research, we have demonstrated innovation in our own delivery by taking some calculated risks to both enhance reputation and improve the opportunities of our students, graduates, staff, communities and businesses. We took over the internationally renowned National Glass Centre on the banks of the River Wear, creating a significant arts and cultural facility delivering world class research in glass and ceramics, alongside a vibrant and dynamic visitor attraction. We opened our London Campus offering a number of different opportunities to existing staff and students, and attracting applications from all over the world. We have invested our own resources to create schemes and projects to improve the prospects of our graduates with a compelling Sunderland Futures offer covering opportunities for mentoring, entrepreneurship and volunteering. Set alongside this we have opened our own Intern Factory to facilitate the business community having access to skills and thinking otherwise absent from their aspirations and plans, and to give our graduates the first step into a graduate level job.
Innovation in programme design, content and delivery remains a constant theme as we work with all of our stakeholders to ensure our graduates can be enterprising, creative and innovative.

On place shaping we have invested significantly in our two campus site in the North East and plan to continue to do so. Our facilities now include specialist laboratory and hub spaces to facilitate business and academia working together to create value propositions. We have attracted funding to build an Enterprise and Innovation centre incorporating the North East’s first Fablab to encourage and foster creativity and innovation in design across our communities. This facility will become the catalyst for convergent thinking as we begin to join together some of the value we have in our individual academic areas such as design, in response to the demands and suggestions of our business community. The Enterprise and Innovation Centre will become the catalyst and focus of engagement between students-staff-employers to deliver the skills society and the economy need.

We are also host to an award winning local radio station and a new local TV company who work alongside one another in one of our existing enterprise places. The university is the lead partner in The Cultural Spring, a £2m project funded by Arts Council England as part of its Creative People and Places programme. The project is designed to encourage people from hard to reach communities to re-engage with arts activity – from storytelling and music to the visual arts and performance. In our Faculty of Applied Sciences, staff work alongside many industry partners and have developed a unique partnering relationship with the local health foundation trust. Innovations on campus include a ‘point of care’ testing centre facilitating the training and development of a range of health workers.

All of this activity results in an engaged dynamic and significant institution with a real focus on students, the value we deliver to them, the life changing opportunities we present them with, and the connections and support we offer to our business community.

We are extremely proud of the contribution we make to society and business in our region and across the world. But none of this activity is captured in the traditional metrics of higher education. The REF dominates the contribution to research, the NSS scores dominate the impact on students and increasingly the DLHE results are used to measure the success of our graduates.

I fear we are in danger of missing the very vital contribution we make to our communities and our economies, and the global connectivity we create.

Where do we recognise social mobility and the creation of social capital that we foster amongst our students? Where are we measuring the impact on society of having fantastic cultural and artistic endeavour facilitated through our Universities? Where do we assess the real impact on our communities of the presence of an anchor or place shaping institution within our localities?  How do we measure the impact of simply facilitating conversations with our business and SME community, allowing them the opportunity to build the confidence to take the next step in growth? How are we measuring innovation? Where do we recognise the value of global alumni, creating and generating ideas, wealth and relationships? Where do we recognise the role of graduates in our local economy? And where do we recognise the spirit, the diversity, the aspiration raising and optimism that a community of scholars can bring to a locality?

Our own economic impact study suggests the institution contributed £561m to GVA in 2012/13 and supported 7500 jobs in the UK economy. We also contributed £40m to UK Balance of Trade through our international activities resulting in economic benefits of over £200m for the countries in which we operate. For every £1 of public funding invested in the institution this was returned almost 20 times over to the UK economy.    

None of this however recognises or acknowledges the true contribution a civic university can make to its region and its global partners. As times get tougher and Treasury demands to see a return on investment for every public pound spent, we may be able to roll out this economic data to defend our positions, but we must not underestimate or underplay the significant broader economic and social contribution that our great civic universities make, in collaborating, innovating or place shaping.

Without the endeavour of our regionally based, business and community connected innovative universities and the inspirational staff who work within them, the outcomes for our localities and the UK economy would be significantly less.

Follow Shirley on Twitter: @shirleythevc