Are interregional relations the new international relations?

Universities can link important second-tier cities that are often growing faster and are more innovative

Relations between regions will be the new international relations. The diplomats of the future will represent cities. That, at least, is my hypothesis based on two trends:

  1. The focus on cities as emerging units of governance, taking on the problem-solving responsibilities traditionally held by nations. I’ve written about this before (for example here). The focus on cities is due to more than population growth and new buildings, which we often associate with the term urbanisation. Yes, cities are growing. But they are also political actors and centres of ideas and innovation.

  2. The need for these cities to work with each other. I’ve written about this here. Agglomeration economics are not new – the northeast megalopolis in the US is a prime example – but relations also need to stretch beyond individual clusters.

Similarly, there has been quite a lot of attention paid recently to universities and place, but not so much on how universities work with other universities and partners across and between places, and the connecting role they have between local, national and international. The focus on cities and their connections magnifies the importance of universities in cities, and the connections they can help broker.

Two recent articles in Times Higher Education mirror this. The first frames universities as problem solvers. Michael Crow writes:

…universities should take responsibility for the betterment of society; that we can and should be measured by the impact that we have on the public good… Education should move beyond singular academic disciplines as the point of focus and towards multidisciplinary programmes and schools capable of understanding and solving complicated real-world problems.

Second, Clare Melhuish references historian Thomas Bender, who

has compared urban universities to immigrant neighbourhoods in US cities, where residents live in both local place and in a trans-local, diasporic culture at the same time – grounded, while globally connected. From this perspective, universities need to develop a long-term view of how they nurture and evolve those everyday interactions.

In a recent post I asked what might happen if we were to frame development in terms of cities (and the towns in their orbit and the spaces that separate them) rather than nations. Here are four initial thoughts:

  1. Networks of cities (such as this one or this one) will greatly increase in importance. Most people would struggle to name a group that brings together city or regional leaders, but there are countless well-known examples of gatherings for heads of state. I think international networks of cities are in their infancy and will greatly grow in profile and influence.

  2. Similarly, bilateral relationships between cities and regions become more significant. There is growing evidence of this. To take an example of relationships between British and Chinese cities: earlier this month a Confucius Institute opened at Coventry University, a new collaboration between the university and a longstanding partner – Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics (JUFE) in Nanchang. And there are already smart city collaborations between Bristol and Guangzhou, and between Manchester and Wuhan.

  3. Freed from the constraints of nations, we start to think about groups of people. For example, the pioneering work of Andy Sumner found that 72% of the world’s poorest people live in middle income rather than low income countries (in particular India). In part this work helped increase the focus on inequality and highlighted that poverty is often a distribution problem between regions in countries rather than an international distribution problem.

  4. Development issues don’t conform to nation states. Simon Maxwell, the former director of the UK-based Overseas Development Institute, recently gave a speech exploring development agency choices in a new landscape. Reflecting on the shrinking number of low-income countries, he talks about development agencies focusing less on specific ‘target’ countries (except, perhaps, the small group of ‘fragile’ states) and more on the ‘essential building blocks’ of global public goods. These include preventing the emergence and spread of infectious disease, tackling climate change, enhancing international financial stability, strengthening the international trading system, achieving peace and security, and generating knowledge – all challenges that cross borders and require extensive cooperation. He concludes:

the emphasis on global public goods suggests turning an old mantra on its head: not ‘think global, act local’, but ‘think local, act global’.

Universities already have strong links across regions, and in particular international links that aren’t solely between one capital city and another. They link between the important second-tier cities that are often growing faster and are more innovative, but have a lower profile. They draw on alumni, research, staff and institutional relationships. They think local and act global. They can play an important role in facilitating new regional connections.

Photo Credit: Shenzhen cityscape by BBC World Service on Flickr

History, policy and development

In policy both the medium and long term are often sacrificed in favour of the short term

Having studied both history and international development, I’m always interested in work that bridges the two. ‘History, Historians and Development Policy’ fits the bill perfectly. One of the many valuable lessons to draw from such work is the importance of taking a long term view:

…history brings a particular kind of perspective to development problems – it is a vantage point for framing and viewing the nature of development which is relatively long term and comparative, while also paying full attention to, and not shying away from, critical issues of power, contestation and conflict. (p.16)

In policy both the medium and long term views are often sacrificed in favour of the short term, for example the apparent willingness to erase the institutional memory on higher education within government. Although this rarely results in colossal blunders, it clearly hinders effective learning and can engender cynicism in those on the receiving end.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is an interesting exercise to free ourselves from the short and medium term and think ultra long term. For example, this piece argues that ‘megacities, not nations, are the world’s dominant, enduring social structures’, and that cities have outlasted all ‘empires and nations over which they have presided’. If we were to frame development in terms of cities (and the towns in their orbit and the spaces that separate them) rather than nations, how would this affect policy? And would, for example, universities in those cities change their strategies? (I’ll look at this next week).

We should welcome historians into policymaking. The excellent History & Policy site attempts to do just that. An essay from 2010 on ‘The ‘Idea of a University’ today’ concludes:

If we seek guidance from the past, it is better to see the ‘idea of the university’ not as a fixed set of characteristics, but as a set of tensions, permanently present, but resolved differently according to time and place. Tensions between teaching and research, and between autonomy and accountability, most obviously. But also between universities’ membership of an international scholarly community, and their role in shaping national cultures and forming national identity; between the transmission of established knowledge, and the search for original truth; between the inevitable connection of universities with the state and the centres of economic and social power, and the need to maintain critical distance; between reproducing the existing occupational structure, and renewing it from below by promoting social mobility; between serving the economy, and providing a space free from immediate utilitarian pressures; between teaching as the encouragement of open and critical attitudes, and society’s expectation that universities will impart qualifications and skills. To come down too heavily on one side of these balances will usually mean that the aims of the university are being simplified and distorted.

Photo Credit: roomman via Compfight cc

The Paradise Group and other unrelated musings

Welcome to Paradise City

A new “Russell Group type” alliance of the top universities in Africa will bring together 15 universities from 8 countries. Notwithstanding the difficulties of coordinating activity from Lagos to Pretoria and from Dakar to Kampala – and research collaboration is one of the main aims – such a group is overdue.

One of the strengths of the UK system is the diversity of institutions. It would be good to also see a University Alliance for Africa, although a regional network may be more effective – for example a West or East African grouping.

Of course, such groups need a good name. The Russell Group is named after the hotel in Bloomsbury where the group was formed. I remember staying at Paradise City Hotel in Nigeria – the Paradise Group does have a good ring to it…

City leadership ‘missing a trick’

The Government Office for Science recently published a report on ‘the future of city leadership in the United Kingdom’. It’s good to see a recommendation to integrate local universities into city leadership, and to use universities as part of a wide knowledge base for informing leadership (page 37):

City networks can enhance learning as cities work together, as can partnerships with universities and think tanks. Some workshop participants citied a growing involvement and contribution from universities in their work, while others felt that cities were often “missing a trick” where universities were concerned. This “trick” might be a critical way for city leaders to leverage local resources to increase their knowledge and hence their capacity. Universities can serve as independent and neutral partners, providing academic rigour to the evidence used to inform policy and programme development. Long-term collaborations (as opposed to individual projects) that involve joint working and co-production of knowledge in particular can bring substantial benefits to cities.

We’re doing work on this at Universities UK in light of devolution, and feeding into House of Commons inquires such as this one looking at the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine. Leadership is important both within and across cities, especially in new geographies that aim to create ‘systems of cities’.

Learning Circle: peer-to-peer education

GNU_Emacs_ELIZA_example Image: A bad example of Eliza the chatbot

A Pearson/UCL Institute of Education paper makes the case for taking artificial intelligence in education more seriously.

We’ve had realistic psychotherapists since the 1960s, today chatbots are about to take off, and in the near future automation and machine learning offer huge potential rewards to those who can capitalise on them.

Chatbots in education are highly unlikely to replace lecturers any time soon. But a bot you could add on WhatsApp that you can ask to reserve a book in the library, or book a room for group study, or advise on research resources, or provide basic pastoral support, or request transcripts is certainly possible today.

I also wonder what the education equivalent of a Funding Circle or a Ratesetter might look like. These FinTech services bypass banks and allow individuals to lend money at a higher interest rate and others to borrow money at a lower rate than at banks, by mediating between the two and taking a small cut in the middle. A higher education equivalent would bypass the institution and allow lecturers to teach small groups directly – the opposite end of the scale to MOOCs. Ultimately, however, you’d still face the same issues as MOOCs in terms of accreditation, and lose the many benefits of studying at university.

Images: Paradise City Hotel, Calabar, Nigeria / Example of ELIZA in Emacs by Ysangkok at English Wikipedia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2236326)

Brain drain and mobile talent: where international development and higher education overlap

Efforts to improve retention or to attract skilled people will fail if the place itself isn’t an attractive destination to live and work

Development practitioners call it brain drain. In higher education it’s called graduate retention. In the UK difficulties in retaining graduates in most cities outside of London is an obstacle to rebalancing the economy – a recent study found 15 graduates leave Yorkshire for London for every one moving the other way. In development-speak, brain drain from one country to another is traditionally seen as leading to a ‘human capital’ deficit in the migrant’s home country.

In some cases, an exodus of skilled workers has been encouraged. Devash Kapur explains how Zimbabwe, under the leadership of Robert Mugabe, has encouraged migration of ‘disgruntled groups’ to maintain authoritarian rule. Much of the Zimbabwean middle class, having the financial means to migrate, has fled to South Africa. Such migration benefits Mugabe, who maintains power and minimises opposition, whilst Zimbabwe receives remittances from the diaspora in South Africa, and South Africa benefits from skilled workers (in particular demand as many highly trained South Africans in turn have emigrated elsewhere).

Others such as Easterly and Nyarko argue that there could be some upsides to brain drain. A few examples:

The migrants themselves are better off, by revealed preference since migration is voluntary.

The migrants may send remittances back to boost the incomes of those left behind.

The migrants may have a positive effect on politics or institutions from abroad.

The migrants may facilitate trading networks that increase source-country exports to the destination country.

I admire work that challenges conventional thinking, and I think most of this analysis holds up at both the level of the individual, and at a macro or national level. What’s missing is the gap in-between: the impact on those places beyond the capital city, the ‘second tier’ cities, the towns and rural areas who lose their skilled workers and human capital. The retention of skilled workers in towns and cities outside the capital allows these places to become sustainable generators of their own human capital, training and educating the next generation who will work and study there, and in turn help that place to grow and to prosper. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Another argument worth exploring from Easterly and Nyarko is this one:

The migrants may return home permanently or temporarily, bringing back technology.

If we substitute ‘technology’ for ‘skills’ (and other assets like networks and experience of other systems and cultures), similar arguments are made for higher education in the UK. Graduates move to London for their first job after graduating, but return to their home town – perhaps to start a family, or buy a house – for their second, third or fourth job. The graduates return more ‘valuable’ than they left, and the town benefits. Similarly, students studying abroad will return to opportunities at home, as seen in Asia. There is a ‘boomerang’ effect, with short-term investments giving medium-term returns.

There’s been some recent work on the role universities can play in retaining skilled graduates, and to help areas retain the skills and knowledge that are needed locally. About 18 months ago the City Growth Commission looked at the role of universities in ‘metro areas’. One recommendation proposed ‘golden handcuffs’ to retain graduates through monetary or other incentives. Another – and I think more promising – recommendation was to establish a graduate clearing scheme to funnel good-but-unsuccessful job applications to large graduate recruiters towards small enterprises. And last month, the Government Office for Science looked at graduate mobility, drawing on five case studies of excellent work by universities fostering entrepreneurship, matching supply and demand, working with SMEs, and using data to improve retention.

Ultimately, efforts to improve retention or to attract skilled people from elsewhere will fail if the place itself isn’t an attractive destination to live and work. Universities clearly play a role here too. Work by KPMG describes ‘Magnet Cities’ that attract the young wealth creators of tomorrow, and in turn create an air of energy and excitement about a place. Several of the examples highlight the role of universities. The Government Office for Science report above talks about the importance of ‘place attractiveness’. A recent book, ‘The Smartest Places on Earth’, argues that depleted industrial centres in the US and Europe are reinventing themselves, with the help of universities, as innovation centres that can solve the problems of the future.

Migration is, of course, highly complex, with large cities also suffering from talent deficits in particular areas, masked by overall trends in movement. In London, creative experts are leaving for more affordable cities. Some commentators encourage the term ‘brain circulation’ to reflect this. Perhaps, above all else, mobility should be prioritised – it shouldn’t matter whether a graduate remains in his or her town after graduating, but rather that the town attracts those people with the skills needed for its development, regardless of where they are from.

Anchor tenants

It may not always be enough to be within a particular city. Sometimes it matters exactly where you are

When the Grand Central shopping centre in Birmingham opened alongside a redeveloped New Street Station in September 2015, a fair amount of the fanfare was directed towards John Lewis, the ‘anchor tenant’ in the development. The Birmingham Mail described 2015 as the year that changed Birmingham forever and highlighted the arrival of the store. And John Lewis themselves were quick to capitalise on the attention focused on the city’s regeneration, commissioning ‘the largest panoramic photograph ever taken of the city’s changing skyline’ (it’s worth a look).

Anchor tenants are highly prized in retail – they bring prestige and draw in crowds, who often spend money in other shops and restaurants in the area. They encourage other shops and businesses to move in to the area. They invest heavily, are large employers and are there for the long-term. In return they may pay lower rent than surrounding shops.

There are strong parallels between anchor tenants in retail and the role of universities as anchor institutions in cities. Here, I pick out a few examples of universities who closely resemble ‘anchor tenants’ – investing heavily in the area and becoming a core part of the identity of the city, and in turn shape its character. They are all significant economic actors, employing large numbers of people and tying their future to that of the area and the people that will visit, study and live in it. There are two key themes: the long-term nature of the anchor role, and the immediate co-location with either government, the public sector, or significant transport and infrastructure hubs.

1. Dublin, Ireland

Dublin

Trinity College Dublin (red) sits next to the Irish Houses of Parliament (blue). On the other side of the campus sit the National Library and the National Gallery. For a member of parliament to speak to an academic, or a student to sit in on a debate, they simply need to cross College Green.

2. Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki

The main university building (red) sits to one side of Senate Square. Opposite is the Prime Minister’s Office (blue), and overlooking the square and visible from sea is Helsinki Cathedral (yellow). The university departments and facilities are scattered in an arc behind the square, but this is the symbolic heart of the city.

3. Accra, Ghana

Accra

Although the University of Ghana has its main campus at Legon, 12km north of the city centre, it also has a smaller campus in the city centre (red), near to several government ministries (blue), the African Development Bank, the National Theatre and the International Conference Centre (yellow).

4. Birmingham, England

Birmingham

You don’t need to be built as part of the original city centre development to be an anchor tenant. We return to Birmingham, but this time to a different station – Curzon Street. Birmingham City University (BCU) is investing heavily in Birmingham’s Eastside (red), near the proposed site of the High Speed 2 railway terminal (blue). BCU is anticipating the future, and actively shaping it – in this case by helping establish a college for rail engineering.

There are thousands more examples throughout the world, including universities who are anchor institutions in smaller towns and cities. Some have been deliberately placed by city planners hundreds of years ago next to government buildings. Others are pre-empting new hearts of cities. Some have a central presence that links to external sites (we can also see this with university satellite campuses in London, for example). Whether the buildings themselves are new or old, the planning is long term.

My initial impression is that ‘micro-location’ counts. That is, it may not always be enough to be within a particular city. Sometimes it matters exactly where you are – if you are across the road from parliament, you are likely to be consulted ahead of institutions further out. And if you take the initiative and build in an area of potential strategic importance, and invest heavily, and have room for expansion, business and industry will co-locate with you.

POLAR for the world – splitting countries into 7,500 sections

I’ve been working with some of the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) datasets on young people’s participation in higher education, and was thinking how useful and interesting this information would be on a global scale.

There are two key maps. The first is Participation of Local Areas (POLAR); see an example for Brighton, UK, above. The POLAR classification looks at how likely young people are to participate in higher education across the UK and shows how this varies by area. Areas in red are those that have the lowest participation rates while areas in dark blue are those that have the highest participation rates. Yellow is in the middle.

Gaps detailed

The second is more nuanced and perhaps more useful. It shows gaps in participation – the proportion of young people participating in higher education compared to that expected given GCSE-level attainment and ethnic profile. In the example above, also for Brighton, in those areas shaded red young participation is much lower than expected. In those areas shaded blue, participation is much higher than expected. In those areas shaded white, young participation rates are as expected.

Whilst higher education participation data is probably available at country or broader sub-country level for most countries, the real value is in the hyper-local detail – in this case at the level of electoral wards, of which there are 7,669 in England alone. The potential insights are obvious from the discrepancies in colour between neighbouring wards. I’d be fascinated to see other countries divided into 7,500 sections and each section scored for higher education participation – would countries with similar inequality levels or income levels look similar? How do urban and rural areas compare across countries? How about those areas in close proximity to a cluster of universities or a major transport network? Or those close to a border of a wealthier neighbour?

As an aside, there’s a very good podcast on data and development on the Development Drums podcast.

How universities can help ‘smart cities’ become transformative (and why leapfrogging is difficult)

Cities are constantly in states of flow, and can easily be locked into patterns of behaviour that over time can have serious consequences

We are some way from realising the transformative effects of smart cities,1 and further still from these effects benefiting the poorest in society. I have a couple of thoughts on their potential:

  1. Can smart cities be to cities what smartphones are to ‘dumb’ phones? A button (non-smart) phone today seems closed and antiquated compared to the limitless panoply of apps and the functionality of touchscreen phones. Or will the ‘wide experiential gulf’ between the top-end smartphones and generic low-end smartphone handsets be replicated in tomorrow’s smart cities? I suspect there will be wide variations in effective implementation, and I suspect the impact will be far less dramatic and sudden than the shift from ‘dumb’ to smart phones. Cities have been developing for thousands of years and smart infrastructure needs to be embedded and layered upon existing foundations. But a transformative, positive wave of impact is possible.
  2. Can this wave of possible impact enable some cities to ‘leapfrog’ their development? Comparing cities again to phones, think of a country with limited phone networks skipping the installation of telegraph poles and landlines and instead building a fast mobile network. Kenya, for example, has excellent mobile phone reception in remote areas but limited landlines. So could a smart city allow urban areas with poor healthcare, high crime, limited access to, for example, banks and bus routes, and areas of general deprivation to leapfrog some of the traditional, slower means of development? Unfortunately, smart cities are no shortcut, and mobile phones are an unusually effective leapfrogger. Instead, you usually need to have gone ‘medium tech’ before you can go ‘high tech’.

So what is needed? Cities will need to be both adaptable and smart. Underpinning both is social capital. The World Economic Forum has developed a four part taxonomy of city competitiveness, with ‘soft connectivity’, a city’s social capital, a critical factor. Education is the ‘ultimate soft connectivity’, and cities can specialise in knowledge intensive niches by capitalising on education. Education and soft connectivity make investments in hard infrastructure and new technology more productive.

Cities are constantly in states of flow, and can easily be locked into patterns of behaviour that over time can have serious consequences. A city with a highly skilled workforce, with access to continuous education and training opportunities, is also a highly adaptive one.

An adaptive city is a resilient city. Work by Nesta has shown that 87 percent of highly creative workers are at low or no risk of automation compared with 40 percent of jobs in the UK as a whole. You can complete an online survey to determine whether your job is at risk of being taken by a robot. Whilst automation is likely to solve many more problems than it creates, a successful city in future years will adapt to these changes, attracting creative industries and highly skilled jobs.

The objectives of ‘smart’ and ‘adaptable’ cities are mutually reinforcing, with a smart city a more responsive one, and an adaptable city more likely to benefit from the insights delivered through data and technology. Universities play an important role in developing and testing new technologies, curating and understanding data (and the infrastructure behind it), and conceptualising and operationalising the ‘Internet of Things’ – a network of physical objects that collect and exchange information.

City leaders and universities will need to work together to harness the benefits of smart cities. The UK Future Cities Catapult is a good example of this, bringing together businesses, universities and city leaders to turn ideas into prototypes, including developing sensor networks and unlocking urban data. There is particular focus on smart cities in emerging economies. The Catapult has just signed an MOU with the China Center for Urban Development, building on smart city collaboration two years ago between Bristol and Guangzhou, and last year between Manchester and Wuhan. And in 2015 India set a target of 100 smart cities, focussing on satellite towns of larger cities and modernising existing mid-sized cities. It will be interesting to see whether any ‘leapfrogging’ takes place within these cities, and how inclusive the benefits are.


  1. There are many definitions of smart cities, but I like the European Commission one: ‘a place where the traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies, for the benefit of its inhabitants and businesses’. 

New research: More universities means faster growth

New research published today from the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics:

We compiled new data based on UNESCO’s World Higher Education Database detailing the location of 15,000 universities in 1,500 sub-national regions across 78 countries over the period 1950 to 2010. On average, doubling the number of universities in a region increases that region’s subsequent income by over 4%. There are also spillover effects to other regions in the same country, creating a growth multiplier.

More in the blog post here and the full article here.

The myth of the dying university

Universities are brokers and coordinators and ideas machines and leaders at a time when decision making is becoming more local

I’m struck by how often people predict the death of universities. I was at an event recently when a director of a very large education company compared universities today to the music industry in 2002: unwilling to embrace innovation, with the education equivalent of a Napster – perhaps online learning – waiting around the corner to smash the sector to pieces. The analogy of university campuses as CDs and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) as MP3s is a nice marketing trick for management consultancies, but it dangerously underplays the important role of universities in their locality (more on that here).

Most recently such predictions (often found in the comments sections of online newspaper articles) have been in response to the rise of higher-level apprenticeships and government targets of creating 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. A common narrative is that ‘traditional’ degrees don’t provide workplace skills, going to university is a waste of time, and there are too many graduates. The evidence disagrees.

Such comments aren’t new. Back in 1997 Peter Drucker, the famous business and management author, predicted that

Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.

Admittedly we won’t know whether he’s right until 2027. However, I’m quietly confident we’ll see big university campuses for centuries to come. Some may close and others will expand. But ‘going to university’ – physically going to a set of buildings and a space with an identity and lots of other students and teachers from many different places and with different perspectives and ideas – is a huge draw for students.1 But the main reason I think he’s wrong is the role of universities in their cities and regions, and the importance of knowledge institutions in knowledge economies. Universities are brokers and coordinators and ideas machines and leaders at a time when decision making is becoming more local, and powers and decisions are being devolved to towns and cities and regions.

We can also look at what’s happening in the most populated countries in the world. If universities are dying, surely the most vibrant and ambitious nations would be investing their resources elsewhere? Just last week it was reported that China is opening a new university every week. India’s February 2016 budget proposes a scheme to create 20 world-class universities.

The scope and direction and strategy of higher education will shift in coming years, but universities are here to stay.

Image: “Plan of land under control of Public Wor” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by  State Records SA 

  1. As an aside, a few weeks ago I was fortunate to hear a great presentation by Paul Roberts, who, in a fascinating 30 minute tour through centuries of campus planning, explained that the most competitive universities of the future will be those with a city-centre campus location, and provided a convincing case of the value of universities as physical spaces. I’ll review his book in a future post. 

Will the term ‘third mission’ become obsolete?

I argue that third mission activity is becoming core activity, and discuss issues of localism and internationalisation, in an article published today on the Universities UK blog:

Nearly all universities have in their name the city or region in which they are based. Along with other so-called ‘anchor institutions’ such as hospitals, universities are deeply embedded in the local economy, working with businesses, meeting skills needs, educating future workforces, and have an important social connection with the local community.

However, perhaps more so than other anchors, universities are ideally positioned to bridge local, national and international. With the focus on localism, universities can help improve their locality, but also transcend it, pulling in their institutional, research and alumni networks to help connect their locality to the wider world. Universities have a ‘connective anchor’ role.

Read the full piece here.