Universities as Place Makers – HEFCE Chief challenges West Midlands

The speaker at the Birmingham Science City’s Chief Technology Officers Group on 11 December 2014 was Professor Madeleine Atkins, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Those that braved the wet, wild morning were treated to a concise, comprehensive and current overview of ways that Universities engage with the place that they are located, and the importance being placed on this role across the political spectrum as we move towards a general election. Professor Atkins, as an old friend of the region, was quick to throw down the gauntlet for West Midlands Universities, suggesting that they were very well placed to grow their role as Place Makers.

The ways that universities can fulfil this Place Making role can be summarised as follows:

Engaging with schools has been a required activity of universities for a long time with £600m per year spent on outreach in England. This is moving from a focus on ‘whizz-bang’ demonstrations to deeper engagement in the running of schools. HEFCE is tracking the performance of university run schools with great interest.

The local skills agenda is an area all parties want universities to be more engaged with, through technical undergraduate and masters degrees as well as apprenticeships. Universities should be capatalising on the Autumn Statement announcement of student loans being expanded to Masters degrees, but they should also be exploring different models of training provision and funding that will engage SMEs and older people, for example. In some cases Universities will be a catalyst for skills development, rather than the provider.

Economic growth through university-business engagement has been funded via the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) for many years now and has made huge changes in attitudes of academics and businesses alike to the value of collaboration and knowledge exchange. Impact is now a much bigger factor (20%) in the Research Assessment Framework (REF) that contributes to determining university funding – with the new assessment due out very soon we will see how WM universities are performing by this measure. Universities should be looking at new narratives and ways of engaging with their local economic growth agendas, particularly in the context of devolution of powers.

Social Innovation and Social Enterprise is the newest area of Place Making for universities, although it grows out of a tradition of volunteering. Community based business has become a big growth area and a priority in terms of national and European funding. Some universities have established Business Parks and incubators exclusively for social enterprises, or taken over community assets such as theatres or arts centres.

Professor Atkins had a number of clear messages for West Midlands universities and the organisations that work with them in terms of further building their role as Place Makers:

• Place making is a long game with no quick wins.
• It requires being open to new ideas from inside – staff, enthusiastic students – as well as from outside.
• It requires collaboration with other universities, local authorities, businesses etc on an ongoing and dynamic basis, not just project by project.
• There may need to be recognition that with devolution to second tier cities happening, the Haldane principle of public R&D investment decisions being made solely on the basis of peer review – some decisions may be based on economic geography.
• The funding environment is likely to continue to be challenging so an encouragement to share facilities – this should be seen as an opportunity to share with other universities and business.
• There are funds available to help universities to embrace this place making role, including the Catalyst Fund and the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund, but very few WM applications to either so far.

There are people round the country, including the West Midlands, who were aggrieved by the major science funding awards for the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ announced in the Autumn Statement. But Professor Atkins argued this is the result of 10 years or more of building up relationships and a shared vision, a model which has scope to be replicated elsewhere, including the West Midlands.


With thanks to St Modwen’s for hosting the event at the Longbridge Innovation Centre and to Professor Madeleine Atkins for a stimulating talk and discussion. 

Pam Waddell, Director of Birmingham Science City