The role of the university in city/regional development: a view from a Vice-Chancellor in Bristol

ericthomaspic1The entry has been kindly prepared for us by Professor Eric Thomas, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol.  Professor Thomas has been Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol since 2001.  Prior to that he was  Head of the School of Medicine, and later Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Health and Biological Sciences, University of Southampton.  Professor Thomas is currently a member of the Board of the South-West Regional Development Agency. He is Chair of the Research Policy Committee of Universities UK and a member of its Board.

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The United Kingdom is the classic high added-value, knowledge economy. We don’t dig anything out of the ground anymore and we don’t make anything in any great quantity anymore. Our economic success depends upon us providing high intellectual and creative skills, and on technological and service innovation.

Universities are at the heart of that in both providing the intellectual workforce and in technological innovation. It is said that in medieval times villages and towns were built around the manor house, in the Victorian era they were built around the factories and that, if we were building new towns and villages now, they would be built around universities. Certainly when the UK Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) put out a call for locations without higher education to apply for a new facility,  the 35 who applied would support the thesis.

I often compare the City of Bristol in 1961 with the City today. In 1961 Bristol was dominated by heavy engineering and manufacturing industry. The aerospace industry employed tens of thousands of people as did both tobacco and Fry’s chocolate. At that time, the University of Bristol had about 3000 students and 300 academic staff. It was a small consideration in the economy of Bristol and could exist, almost as an ivory tower, up the hill in Clifton and unengaged with the ambitions of the city.

bristol2If you now fast forward to 2009, all that industry except aerospace has gone. And yet, the University of Bristol is the largest independent employer in the city, responsible for 5500 jobs and a further 4500 from indirect employment. A study some years ago in the South West Region reported the economic impact of a university as 1.74 times turnover. A more recent study of London South Bank University by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which took into account the economic impact of the added value from the graduates through their lifetime, concluded that the impact was approximately six times turnover. Viewed like this, it would make the University of Bristol’s impact on the local and national economy in excess of £2 billion per year and higher education in general in the UK in the order of £100 billion per year or over 8% of GDP.

Of course, such figures will provoke dispute. However the general message of the importance of higher education to the local and national economies is now, I would argue, beyond question. How, therefore, does a university like Bristol respond to such a role which is relatively new?

The first important action is to ensure that working with the city is right at the center of your current public strategy. This is so for the current University Strategy, and will be strengthened in our Plan for 2009–2016.

Secondly the head of the institution must articulate that ambition clearly and become personally engaged with the city and region. For example, I am a member of the Partnership Board for the Bristol City Council which advises the Leader and Chief Executive. For six years I was a member of the Board of the South-West Regional Development Agency. I have been a trustee of an important local charity. Perhaps most importantly I assiduously attend all city social events and network with the other key players in the city and always articulate our desire to assist the city-region. I have also opened up the university for the use of many partners and organizations in the city.

More practically, we have a large Research and Enterprise Directorate which works closely with local businesses. Their aim is to ensure the most rapid transfer of knowledge and technology generated in the university and the easiest access possible for businesses to our skills and technical expertise. This is not only for big businesses. We have set up the Bristol Enterprise Network to assist knowledge transfer among the high tech, high growth SMEs in the Bristol sub-region. This currently has 1500 members. This not only provides networking opportunities but also news and information and training in business skills.

We need to work with key partners in the city particularly the National Health Service. The university provides nearly 200 medical staff for health care in the city and must work very closely with local health trusts, not only to ensure the best health care but also the best teaching and research opportunities for our professionals.

The university also provides most of the local teacher training and thus a very important set of professionals for the future of Bristol. Over a period of ten years or so, the University will have invested over £500 million in infrastructure which has knock-on effects in the local planning, architectural, building and legal services, to name but a few.

bristol11However it is not only in business that the university works with the city. Many of our staff are school governors or trustees of charities. We are working very closely on the development of a new school which opened in 2008,  Merchants’  Academy Withywood, in South Bristol. We have enormous numbers of cultural events and lectures which are open to the public. It is often overlooked that our academics travel all over the world. The people most commonly putting up Powerpoint presentations with the word ‘Bristol‘ in the title are the staff of the University.

Furthermore, our staff are massively networked internationally not only with other academics but also business and government. I get at least four “Google Alerts” a day about the University of Bristol from press all over the world. Stories about the University carry the name Bristol to all parts of the globe and all that PR and advertising comes free.

To some observers, the pressure on universities to increasingly be more global in ambition comes at a price.  However, I do not see any essential or intrinsic conflict,  between being an international, outward facing organization, and working to ensure that the local society gains as much as possible from its university. The two ambitions can be made to be completely compatible, though as I have argued above, both need to be championed and advanced together.

However, I would say that the role of the university in its local city and sub-region is one of the most enjoyable parts of leading a great university in 2009.

Eric Thomas

Strategic communications via global higher ed: the Uniting Students in America (USA) proposal

Further to our entry on the new Rand report (U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology), today’s Chronicle of Higher Education includes coverage (‘Subcommittees Debate Proposal to Bring International Students to U.S.‘)of some global higher ed-related testimony on 19 June 2008 at the United States House of Representatives. This news item is, in some ways, the higher ed side of the higher ed/research dynamic that is becoming framed in global geopolitical and geoeconomic senses by elites in the United States, Europe, Australasia, and so on.

In the context of a joint session sponsored by the US House Foreign Affairs (Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight) and the House Education and Labor Committee (Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness), advocates for the Restoring America’s Leadership through Scholarships for Undergraduates from Developing Countries: The Uniting Students in America (USA) Proposal testified yesterday. The witnesses, as they are deemed, were:

  • George Scott (Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security Team, Government Accountability Office)
  • Philip O. Geier (Executive Director, Davis United World College Scholars Program). Testimony available here.
  • William B. DeLauder (President Emeritus, Delaware State College, Counselor to the President, National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges). Testimony available here.
  • Philip O. Clay (Director, International Admissions and Services, University of Texas – Pan American). Testimony available here.
  • Rachel C. Ochako (Scholar, Davis United World College Scholars Program, Middlebury College). Testimony available here.
  • David S. North (Fellow, Center for Immigration Studies). Testimony available here.

As the Chronicle notes, the plan for the “Uniting Students in America” proposal:

would finance 7,500 scholarships each year for undergraduates from foreign countries who come from low-income families. Rep. William Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts who is the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, said he plans to introduce a bill by the end of the summer that would create the scholarship program. The program is projected to cost $1-billion over four years and would assist 30,000 students per year by the time it is fully phased in.

The testimonies point to a desire to more intensely weave together the dual objectives of international development and the enhancement of the reputational standing of the United States in the world via global higher ed. Indeed, the title of the hearing – Restoring America’s Leadership through Scholarships for Undergraduates from Developing Countries – is a blunt statement that in many ways says it all. Yet it is really the testimonies that provide the nuance and flesh to this agenda. On this note, here are some lengthy quotes from two of the speakers.

First, Philip O. Geier (Executive Director, Davis United World College Scholars Program):

Much has been written about America’s role and reputation in today’s post Cold War and post 9/11 context. Much of that literature is ideological, lacking both balance in perspective and a constructive long term strategic view of America’s special place in the world. While an exhaustive discussion of this literature is beyond the scope of this hearing, this does seem an appropriate place to suggest a few ways to achieve greater balance and a greater focus on long term approaches to America’s positive engagement with the rest of the world.

We would be well served to find a greater balance between our “hard power” and our “soft power.” We would be equally well served to find ways to build in-depth, personal relationships between the most promising future leaders in our country and their counterparts from elsewhere in the world.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates articulated these objectives clearly in a speech given on November 26, 2007. He said, “…based on my experience serving seven presidents, as a former director of C.I.A. and now as secretary of defense, I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use ‘soft power’ and for better integrating it with ‘hard power…. ’ We are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about freedom and democracy, about policies and goals…. We can expect that asymmetric warfare will be the mainstay of the contemporary battlefield for some time. These conflicts will be fundamentally political in nature and require the application of all elements of national power. Success will be less a matter of imposing one’s will and more a function of shaping behavior of friends, adversaries and, most importantly, the people in between.”

Secretary Gates was drawing from the work of Joseph S. Nye Jr.’s Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004) which contends that effective public diplomacy includes “building long-term relationships that create an enabling environment for government policies.” Nye maintains we need to develop “lasting relationships with key individuals….”

Similarly, in January 2008, we were presented with the report [cover image above] of the Secure Borders and Open Doors Advisory Committee constituted jointly by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State. Its co-chairs’ message stated: “Our long term success requires not only that we deter and detect determined adversaries, but also that we persuade millions of people around the globe of our ideals – democratic freedom, private enterprise, human rights, intellectual pursuit, technological achievement.”

One of the key recommendations of the Secure Borders and Open Doors report was that “the U.S. should articulate a comprehensive policy for attracting international students….”

In my view, we are approaching an opportune time for some reformulation of our foreign policy. While we must continue to take all necessary measures to ensure our security, we should also become more pro-active in promoting our nation’s values and opportunities to others so that they can truly understand and benefit from our way of life. In this context, we can leverage one of our country’s most unique strengths, its institutions of higher learning. While worldwide opinion polls would suggest that America has lost its allure, there is no question that America’s colleges and universities remain the envy of the world and that an opportunity to gain a degree in the U.S. is without compare.

And second, from William B. DeLauder (President Emeritus, Delaware State College, Counselor to the President, National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges):

I believe that there is a broad consensus around the country that student mobility contributes greatly to fostering goodwill and better understandings between nations. Some have called this a form of educational diplomacy. To be effective it must occur both ways – i.e., more American students studying abroad and more international students studying in this country.

As stated in the Report of the NASULGC Task Force on International Education [cover image above], “The goodwill and strong personal ties to this nation built through generations of students coming to our colleges and universities from around the world are important underpinnings of U.S. foreign relations.” Former Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed it this way: “International students and scholars enrich our communities with their academic abilities and cultural diversity and they return home with an increased understanding and often a lasting affection for the United States. I can think of no more valuable asset to our country than the friendship of future world leaders who have been educated here.”….

The USA Program therefore should contribute to improving the image of the United States abroad and thereby improve our diplomacy abroad. As several studies have shown, our image around the world is badly tarnished. International students who study in one of our colleges or universities will have an opportunity to meet and talk with American students and others from diverse backgrounds, to experience the diverse American culture, to learn about American democracy, to learn about American institutions, and to obtain a valuable undergraduate education that will be a strong asset in their life pursuits. Many of these students are expected to become future leaders within their respective countries. They will bring with this new responsibility a better understanding of the United States that should enhance their countries’ relationships with the United States.

In some ways this is nothing new: countries around the world have always sought to use scholarships to enhance their strategic communicative capacity, build their economies (through the import of skilled labour), build capacity in other countries, and so on. Yet these are interesting time in the US as the end of the Bush/Cheney era approaches.

Given the rhetoric in these testimonies it might seem like the US should be poised to launch, under the leadership of McCain or Obama, a much more substantial material and symbolic drive to support a vast number of global higher ed linkage schemes, including via the offer of scholarships to students from developing countries. However, the counter-current forces and hurdles are substantial despite the swell we are seeing now re. strategic communications agendas. These include increasing social anxiety in the US about access to a very expensive higher education system, a startling fiscal mess enabled by the Bush/Cheney regime, an ideological disconnect with the idea of state-led action via ‘soft power’ (US neoconservatives being more inclined to use state largesse for the tools associated with ‘hard power’), an existing sense of global higher ed dominance in some political circles (i.e. why spend more when we’re No. 1 already), and the lack of a national approach to higher education, let along global higher ed, as Lloyd Armstrong has noted in Changing Higher Ed.

This is an ongoing debate worth watching as the US prepares itself for a significant national political transition.

Kris Olds