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Universities

Research and innovation clusters – new Royal Society policy briefing

The Royal Society launched a policy briefing on research and innovation clusters today – I provided support for the analysis and wrote the case studies for Israel, Pittsburgh, and Uppsala.

The report is online here, and there’s a blog by Professor Richard Jones on Wonkhe introducing the report: can research clusters help level up the country? Research Professional also has coverage (paywalled article).

(Photo of Pittsburgh from Unsplash)

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Universities

New report: a plan for tackling socio-economic inequalities and boosting health outcomes

A new report published today explores how different sectors can work together to improve health outcomes at a regional level. I was delighted to be the lead author for this report with NHS Confederation, the Yorkshire & Humber Academic Health Science Network, and Yorkshire Universities.

Read the report 📖 (PDF), read the coverage in the Yorkshire Post 📰 or visit the campaign website 🌐.

Even before the pandemic, the government had given a clear commitment to ‘level up’ the regions, which means enabling regions to realise their full potential as part of an overall plan to narrow gaps in prosperity across the country. The economic aftershock of COVID-19 will hit communities hard – making the levelling up agenda more challenging but even more vital.

The report welcomes the growing focus nationally on both ‘health’ and ‘place’ – and sets out how we can align these with a bold ambition for improving quality of life and economic opportunities.

There is a particular focus on the tricky but vital mechanics of cross-sector collaboration, bringing together universities, local government, the health and care sector, business and communities. The traditional wisdom of carefully nurturing partnerships over time needs to be balanced by types of rapid response and new partnerships forged in the response to COVID-19. Read the full report here.

(Image credit)

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Universities

Why most university impact studies are flawed

A version of this article also appears in ACEEU Spotlight magazine 📖

I enjoyed speaking on a lively panel yesterday about regional development and innovation as part of the UIIN conference, relocated successfully from Budapest to Zoom. Together with Matthew Guest from GuildHE we discussed how to better understand the local role of small and specialist providers.

The work builds on experimental alternatives to traditional economic impact studies. I first explored the idea of institutional heatmaps on a post here in 2018, and then expanded on this at a workshop in South Africa later that year. Over the past 12 months I have been working with GuildHE to ‘map’ the impact of some of their members. In yesterday’s presentation I set out why I think the traditional ‘big number’ approach to measuring economic impact is out of step with what places need from their universities. Below I go further and list why I feel these studies are, mostly, flawed endeavours. (I should add that these are my personal views, not those of GuildHE!).

You don’t have to look far to see economic impact studies. My former employer had a flagship biennial report with a steadily-increasing figure for the impact of UK universities – £21.5 billion to UK gross domestic product at last count – which it has used successfully for lobbying and campaigning. As long as this figure keeps increasing, everybody is happy. Many institutions have their own studies – £650 million of impact here, £400 million impact there – and often with LEP-level or regional disaggregation. Of course, such studies are not limited to higher education. We’re informed that shooting contributes £2 billion to the UK economy and supports the equivalent of 74,000 full-time jobs. Ornamental horticulture and landscaping contributed £24.2 billion to national GDP in 2017.

Why we need change

There are helpful academic papers which deconstruct the methodologies for calculating economic impact, and the common pitfalls. Instead, I want to challenge the preoccupation we seem to have with ‘one big number’ impact studies and what we lose in the process.

There are two shifts taking place which render the traditional impact study less effective:

  1. A single large number fails to capture what is increasingly important. The shift towards universities being ‘for’ a place, rather than simply ‘in’ or ‘from’ a place, means this data needs to be far more nuanced. We need to know specifically who is benefitting, and how, and who is missed out. We need to know the businesses and the communities behind these numbers. As disillusionment grows with traditional methods of measuring economic success – GDP, GVA – and attention on ‘inclusive’ and social development begins to be translated into policy change, economic impact analysis needs to keep up.
    Traditional impact studies simply don’t do justice to the range of university activities. They measure spending, output and employment, but do not capture the full impact of engaging with communities in a marginalised neighbourhood, or working with small businesses to strengthen their supply chains, for example – activities that may have huge impact but make little difference to a £400 million impact figure. (Accounting for social value can help here).
  2. As we grapple with recovery from Covid-19, it is both tone-deaf and ineffective for universities to be shouting about how good they are, whilst also asking for assistance from government. Rather than communicating about the size of their value-added, university messaging needs to focus on solutions and partnerships. Policymakers need a more sophisticated understanding of impact which moves beyond broad figures to specific information on which communities, businesses and industries have benefited from the university, and who stands to benefit from future support.

What else is wrong with traditional impact studies?

I should note that economic impact studies are not all bad. It is helpful to see returns on investment, and to raise awareness that universities have economic clout and should be seen alongside other major industries. But they risk being a blunt instrument, obscuring what is often highly patchy and inconsistent local impact behind impressively large numbers. Economic impact studies need to be married to a rich understanding of local impact – perhaps through something like an institutional heat map combined with a survey of perceptions or social impact assessments.

Four further shortcomings that come to mind:

  • Uniformity. Despite huge variation in local contexts across the UK, and the individual histories and missions of universities, impact studies all end up looking pretty much the same. As with my engagement strategies test, if you line up five university impact studies and remove the university name, can you tell who (or where) they are talking about? The uniformity of approach, and measuring success against numerical benchmarks, means we lose out on what may be needed. By working towards what is measured and counted, impact ends up converging into a standardised set of headline numbers and we lose the local context.
  • Impact. Slightly tongue-in-cheek, I would like to see an impact study of impact studies. Do they lead to positive change? Or boost perceptions of universities? Quite possibly. But next time you are in a taxi to a university, ask the driver about the impact of the university. You’re unlikely to be quoted an economic impact figure of £450 million a year to the LEP’s economy. You’ll probably be told about the business that decided to open a new site near the university, or the impact of students volunteering with communities (and how the university is good business for the taxi company – at least before lockdown). You might argue that economic impact analysis is aimed instead at funders and policymakers. But should it not also reach residents and businesses?
  • Fatigue. Somewhat cynically, does anyone really care whether the economic impact is £600 or £900 million? Beyond a certain point, big number fatigue sets in. Figures between institutions are not always directly comparable, and the process of reaching the figures is not always transparent (or easily replicable).
  • Unintended consequences. We are not at this point, but I can imagine a league table of economic impact rankings. Universities should be well aware of the limitations of league tables, and the uncanny ability of rankings to shape and warp policies away from what is important – both for the institution and for the place.

Above all, my concern is that economic impact analysis can mask inequalities and ‘cold spots’ in university engagement. Of course, heatmapping as an experimental alternative brings its own set of issues. Consistency between institutions, subjective judgements over the importance and intensity of shading, and the complexity of trying to map such a wide range of activity are issues that need to be resolved. But they may also expose quite starkly where a university is not working, and not having an impact – things that are hidden in the ‘one big number’ approach.

(Image credits: original images from Unsplash here and here.)

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Universities

When a local economy collapses, we can’t just rely on the grit of communities

This post originally appeared on the Yorkshire Universities website.

I’m a little late in reading Janesville: An American Story, Amy Goldstein’s tale of an industrial Wisconsin town in the depths of the Great Recession. The book received wide praise when published in 2017, telling the story of a community trying to pick itself up in the years following the closure of a major General Motors assembly plant. But the story has particular resonance now, as we stand on the cusp of another wave of economic upheaval. Here are three reflections.

A tale of two towns

Five years after the General Motors plant closed, the shock of vanished jobs has faded. But ‘the ways that time and economic misfortune can rend even a resilient community – a community determined not to lie down and give up – are plain to see’. Goldstein describes the emergence of two Janesvilles: one of business owners that emerged relatively unscathed, and another large group of struggling families. For this group, part of a ‘broad tumbling downhill’, the future is uncertain, incomes have halved, mortgages outstrip house values, food stamps have replaced eating out, and health insurance stops.

Inequality is at the heart of recent work by Yorkshire Universities on health and wealth, including a forthcoming report with NHS Confederation and the Yorkshire & Humber Academic Health Science Network (AHSN). Just before the pandemic struck, Sir Michael Marmot published a report showing widening regional disparities in life expectancy, including falling life expectancy for the poorest. In Yorkshire and the Humber, healthy life expectancy at birth is lower than the national average – with stark variations within the region too. Absence from work because of sickness is greater than the national average. Mortality rates are uniformly higher.

The danger is that the long-term economic impact of coronavirus exacerbates these inequalities. A briefing paper from the Institute for Fiscal Studies makes uncomfortable reading, referencing a study that showed a 1% fall in employment leads to a 2% increase in the prevalence of chronic illness:

To put this in context, if employment were to fall by the same amount as it fell in the 12 months after the 2008 crisis, around 900,000 more people of working age would be predicted to suffer from a chronic health condition. Only about half this effect will be immediate: the full effect will not be felt for two years. The shock to employment from the coronavirus pandemic is likely to be much larger than this and so we may expect a larger rise in poor health.

The poorest in society are hit hardest by recessions, driving wider inequalities in health and wealth, and splitting towns and cities into two.

The challenges of retraining

‘It isn’t simple to take someone with a high school degree and a factory job and help lead them into new work’, reflects Bob Borremans. Bob is a community leader and head of Janesville’s job centre, and faces an uphill battle despite enthusiastic trainees and injections of federal cash.

Retraining and re-skilling are obvious responses to job losses and economic restructuring. But promised jobs at the end of retraining do not always materialise, and the path to graduation is tough. In Janesville, many former factory workers turned to courses at Blackhawk Technical College funded by federal grant programmes. Despite the laudable work of the college, the average pay of those who graduate is a shadow of their pre-recession wages.

The UK’s What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth concludes that employment training programmes for adults can have a positive, although modest, impact on earnings and employment. The key to success is designing appropriate programmes. A review of the evidence by the Centre found shorter programmes (below six months) are more effective for less formal training activity, and that longer programmes generate employment gains when the content is skill-intensive. On the job training programmes tend to outperform classroom-based ones. Further and higher education providers should bear this in mind in the months and years to come.

Phoenixes vs. Planting Seeds

Janesville is proud of its ‘can-do spirit’, a trait that can be traced back generation to generation, to the industrious and hard-working communities that first attracted the likes of General Motors to the town. The problem is that a can-do spirit is, by itself, rarely enough to save a town struck by economic upheaval.

In another project, I have been exploring how world-leading research clusters have emerged in certain places – from advanced manufacturing in Pittsburgh, to life sciences in the Stockholm-Uppsala region, to the high-tech industry in Israel. Many of these have a popular ‘origin story’, often spun by an enthusiastic local press. The story usually goes something like this. The town has a proud past rooted in a particular industry. Economic calamity strikes due to wider structural forces. The proud industry is obliterated. There’s mass unemployment, and, temporarily, hope is lost. But the community is resilient and bounces back through sheer determination and hard work, attracting a new industry and forging a new, bright future – a high-tech phoenix rising from industrial ashes.

The reality is often messier, and the roots of any revival go back much further than the economic calamity. Take Pittsburgh. The steel industry in the city collapsed in the 1980s and the unemployment rate hit 18 percent. The city’s revitalisation is often explained by the grit and character of Pittsburghers, whereas the seeds of revival were planted decades before when the steel industry was at its height. Philanthropic investment led to specialist expertise being developed at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, including a new medical school, forming the foundation of Pittsburgh’s research and innovation clusters today.

There is a similar story in Sweden. When Pharmacia, then one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in Europe, merged with the US company Upjohn in 1995, around 200 research and managerial positions were moved out of Uppsala; the move was initially seen as striking a huge blow to the region. The popular narrative is that the vacuum left by the company’s withdrawal led to a frenzy of entrepreneurial start-ups and innovative ideas. But the emergence of the Uppsala cluster is the result of industrial and academic collaboration over at least 70 years.

The message here is not that people and communities are not important. Specialisation builds on rich legacies, and new clusters form around old industries. Some people – especially the highly-skilled – will thrive; employment in automation and industrial machinery in Pittsburgh is more than twice the national average. But people need to be empowered by structures and institutions that support them. Some places are fortunate to have seeds planted long ago, such as a strong university. Despite the challenges such institutions will be facing themselves, they will need to step up. For places those without, relying on grit will not be enough.

(Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash)

Categories
Universities

Revisiting resilience

This post originally appeared on the Yorkshire Universities website.

Unsurprisingly, a huge amount is being written about the coronavirus crisis. Publications are shifting their entire focus onto the pandemic (‘there is only one story in the world right now’, says WIRED magazine). There has been an explosion of academic publications on the virus, with peer review processes struggling to keep up.

In parallel, we’ve been looking through previous writing to find clues on how to deal with the crisis, and whether the warning signs were there. In 2015, Bill Gates explained how we are not ready for a future epidemic. In 2007, scientists in Hong Kong wrote a scarily prescient paper on coronaviruses, describing with great accuracy the ‘time bomb’ that went off in late 2019 in Wuhan, China.

One idea I’m revisiting is resilience. There are two sides to the concept. The first is empowering: a resilient place returns to normal as quickly as possible after a shock or a disturbance. Such places are flexible and adaptable, learn from previous crises, prioritise skills training, have inclusive societies, encourage innovation, develop diverse industries, and promote clear and transparent leadership. Although the terminology differs, policies around devolution and decentralisation to cities and regions have many of the same aims.

The other side is less rosy. As the concept gained traction in the early 2010s, cities in particular came under pressure to demonstrate their resilience. Leaders shouldered growing responsibilities for their city to tick the latest urban and regional policy boxes – to be sustainable, smart and resilient. However, as Lawrence Vale has written, ‘uneven resilience threatens the ability of cities as a whole to function economically, socially and politically’. Boosting resilience at a local level requires substantial resources and reliable support over long periods of time. Programmes to encourage resilience around the world have proven to be less than resilient themselves.

Shifting the power to tackle local issues and to respond to wider challenges from nations to regions is welcome. But if only responsibility is transferred, without accompanying resources where local institutional capacity and capability is limited, it is unlikely resilience – or devolution – will be successful. As we gradually turn to the economic recovery in the coming months, as government policies to ‘level up’ the regions return to the agenda, and as we consider how to prepare for future crises, it is worth revisiting the literature on resilience.

Photo by Alex Kim on Unsplash

Categories
Universities

…and then they all ran into the sea

Paul Krugman, Nobel prize winning economist and long-time columnist for The New York Times, is also one of the fathers of New Economic Geography. NEG is described as ‘One Economic Theory to Explain Everything’ by a Bloomberg columnist in a handy explainer.

Anyway, I was reading a transcript of a conversation between Krugman and Masahisa Fujita (another parent of NEG) in the journal Papers in Regional Science. Just before the end there’s this helpful reminder of why protectionism and closed borders is so bad for cities:

…agglomeration of a large number of heterogeneous people (essentially, professional workers with heterogeneous skills/knowledge) in a city or industrial district can naturally be expected to contribute to the diffusion, generation/innovation, and accumulation of knowledge, and hence to economic growth. This would certainly be true in the short-run. But this is not assured in the long-run unless there is a sufficient infusion of new blood. (pp.161-162)

Economic growth relies upon new people who help to develop new ideas – clearly endangered by the likes of Brexit. On a lighter note, the transcript (recorded in Puerto Rico) ends as follows:

K: Of course, I agree with you. But, …
I: Hey Paul! Why are standing up? Where are you going?
K: Talking under the Caribbean sun for over two hours has literally fuelled my now burning desire to jump into that ocean.
F: Yeah, all I can think of now is to savour this Caribbean moment with a quick dip and a large beer under the cool shade.
K and F (in unison): Hasta la vista!
Sounds of two big splashes 
I: … Hey, Paul, Masa! Wait for me!
Another big splash is heard, followed by hearty laughter

Categories
Process

How to create print-quality maps using open source software

I’ve always been a fan of maps, from an illustrated picture atlas of the world that I used to pore over as a child, to a battered USSR-era Cyrillic map of Somalia that I bought from an antique store in Estonia. I also enjoy reading about maps – from the excellent exposition of global politics via ten maps in Prisoners of Geography to articles about the creation of Google Maps. It turns out creating maps is also quite fun.

In the past I have used online tools such as Stamen maps, using OpenStreetMap data, or the Google Maps-based Snazzy Maps. But for bespoke print-quality map creation you need to turn to GIS software.

Introducing QGIS and Natural Earth Data

I was inspired to try QGIS, an open source programme available to download here, after reading an interview with Steven Bernard, Interactive Design Editor at the Financial Times, and seeing examples of the finished maps he had created.

Steven has an excellent YouTube walkthrough guide that I recommend following from start to finish. It takes you through downloading QGIS and installing Natural Earth data to advanced styling and designing animated markers.

You build upon a blank map of the world:

Map 01

Which quickly grows in complexity:

Map 02

I needed to create a map showing four specific European cities, and so the map needed refining and tidying. Here’s the final map in QGIS:

Which can then be exported at print resolution, or (in this case) exported as a SVG file for editing in a vector graphics programme. This allows the labels to be adjusted and other visual tweaks made.

QGIS is a hugely powerful program offering a great deal of customisation. The user manual is 420 pages and perhaps best works as a backup reference, with the YouTube walkthrough offering an accessible way to jump in and create your first map.

Categories
Universities

Political trends vs. universities and regions

How might universities and city regions respond to the rifts in the population and apparent rise of populism exposed by Trump and Brexit? From the cacophony of reporting on the consequences of the political events of 2016, three recent perspectives caught my eye. All emphasise the need to better understand the roles of regions and universities.

Cities and bottom-up innovation

Bruce Katz calls for cities and metropolitan areas to power the United States forward under a Trump administration:

A wide range of policies relating to taxes, trade, the environment, immigration, infrastructure, and health care seem likely to be upended. But some things will stay the same—metropolitan areas will continue to drive our national economy forward, and they will remain the geographies most capable of bridging the partisan divisions that plague our national politics. In both of these respects, local leadership will now be more important than ever…

Over the next several years, the hard business of investing in the future and uniting the nation will not be conducted in Washington. Rather it will occur in our localities, where leaders and residents in our cities, suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas will work together to find common ground and purpose.

Universities as the main links between nations

Philip Altbach and Hans de Wit look to history:

Will we see again a de-Europeanization and nationalization of higher education in Europe emerging, in the light of greater criticism of European integration, the growth of nationalist populist movements, and tensions between Russia and western Europe and the United States?

Academic cooperation and exchange have been in many cases, including during the Cold War, the main relations between nations: they continued to take place and even were stimulated so as to pave the way for further contacts. We have to learn from these lessons. International higher education is substantially different from earlier historical periods, as well as from the Cold War. Its scope is also different, with increasing political and academic power influences from other regions of the world, especially Asia. But, even though we should be realistic that international cooperation and exchange are not guarantees for peace and mutual understanding, they continue to be essential mechanisms for keeping communication open and dialogue active.

A resurgence of regional enterprise

An editorial in Regional Studies provides an unusually speculative forecast for an academic journal (the piece is worth reading in full):

The implications for cities and regions of the fracturing of the international order are highly uncertain. Resurgent popular nationalism would have profound consequences for all territories by inhibiting foreign direct investment (FDI), external trade and access to scarce skills, and forcing more reliance on local capabilities and domestic production. Some argue that a reversal of globalization would dampen economic progress and suppress opportunities for the world’s poorest places and populations. Alternatively, patriotic impulses that challenge ossified structures and global cartels could provoke a resurgence of regional enterprise and organic growth. Well-conceived policy reforms that disrupt business inertia could engender another Schumpeterian wave of innovation and creativity based on smaller-scale production. Dynamic regional multipliers might be spurred by efforts to localize resource flows so as to secure the supply of food and scarce materials, to cut energy consumption and to regenerate degraded ecosystems. Enhanced democratic constraints on business short-termism may also curb financial speculation and encourage longer-term investment in the real economy.

Furthermore, international disengagement might serve to bolster local and regional identities and renew a sense of place and belonging. This could elevate the obligations on civic leaders and rebuild confidence in the role of city and regional institutions. Against this, heightened perceptions of fear and insecurity could foster a ‘new tribalism’ through separatist movements, ethnic tensions, insurgent splinter groups and other inward-looking forces that escalate conflict and pull countries and regions apart. Much depends on whether democratic institutions are capable of responding to the genuine concerns of citizens and can meld different interests and values together in pursuit of shared agendas and collective solutions. Meanwhile, if the Paris climate deal leads to restrictions on fossil fuel extraction in favour of clean energy, this could make many regions reliant on oil, gas and coal reserves vulnerable to stranded assets and obsolete power generation systems. The case for regional studies is accentuated rather than diminished in all these scenarios. Systematic analyses of how different territories are adapting to the unravelling of globalization and introducing more holistic and resilient strategies to cope with the turbulence are urgently needed.

In other news, I have written a short piece for KPMG on a new era of university-city partnerships. A longer piece will follow later this year.

Categories
Universities

Commissions, conferences and the voice of universities

Last week Stephanie Flanders, former BBC economics editor, launched the emerging findings of the RSA Inclusive Growth Commission at the Core Cities summit in London. The Commission follows in the footsteps of the City Growth Commission, which informed much of the previous government’s policy on cities and devolution.

The findings argue that:

As a country we need to put social capital on a par with traditional physical infrastructure when we consider how to invest public resources in future growth. That means treating as investment, policies that are designed to bring poorer people and places up to the level where they can contribute equally to economic growth.

A similar message emerges in the ‘zero draft’ of the New Urban Agenda that will be set out at the major UN Habitat III conference in Quito next month:

We recognize that we must ensure equitable and affordable access to basic physical and social infrastructure for all, including affordable serviced land, housing, energy, water and sanitation, waste disposal, mobility, health, education, and information and communication technologies. We further recognize that provision must be sensitive to the rights and needs of women, children and youth, older persons and persons with disabilities, and other people in vulnerable situations such as refugees, migrants, and displaced persons, removing all legal, institutional, physical, and socio-economic barriers that prevent them from participating equally in urban life and the opportunities it offers.

(For more on why Habitat III is a big deal, see this excellent piece published on The Conversation.)

Many economists and policymakers have long advocated for increased investment in education and other social goods on par with physical infrastructure. The voices of the Inclusive Growth Commission and Habitat III will add weight to these arguments.

However, the beneficiaries of investment in social capital also need to speak up at the major conferences and forums. Bodies such as universities and hospitals can make the case for investment in their facilities, and the economic and social returns this generates. They can also position themselves as integral to other parts of the debate where their inclusion is less obvious, such as provision of public space: a strong case can surely be made for investing in open university campuses designed to bring people and ideas together and share knowledge. When I read these sentences in the New Urban Agenda draft, they seem almost written with universities in mind:

Public spaces, which consist of open areas such as streets, sidewalks, squares, gardens and parks, must be seen as multi-functional areas for social interaction, economic exchange, and cultural expression among a wide diversity of people and should be designed and managed to ensure human development, building peaceful and democratic societies and promoting cultural diversity.

Photo: Panorámica del Centro Histórico de Quito on Flickr

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Universities

Engines and Powerhouses evidence published

In what now seems like the distant past, before the Brexit vote and the change of government, the House of Commons launched an inquiry looking at the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine and government policy towards regional growth. (You can read my thoughts on the Northern Powerhouse post-referendum here).

The written submissions to the inquiry have just been published. Of the 50 submissions, a quick count suggests that least a quarter are written by a university, a university group, or an institute based out of a university. Clearly universities are taking the regional growth agenda seriously.

Following the change of government, the committee will now look ‘more broadly at Industrial Strategy, rather than focussing on specific regional models’. Hopefully some of the good practice and lessons learned around forming strong regional links will be taken forward.

Work by Centre for Cities, looking at lessons learned from the Rhine-Ruhr (Germany) and Randstad (Netherlands) regions, found that these areas were successful not because of transport connections between their respective cities, but that ‘strong regional economies require strongly performing cities at their heart’, with a high concentration of knowledge-based businesses and highly skilled workers. This perhaps explains the high level of university engagement with regional policy in the UK.

The Rhine-Ruhr and Randstad regions were part of the inspiration for the Northern Powerhouse. Hopefully the importance of knowledge and skills as the basis for strong economies won’t be lost with a wider focus on Industrial Strategy rather than specific regional models.

I wrote Universities UK’s submission to the inquiry – read it here.

Photo: Kranhaus, Cologne on Flickr