Categories
Universities

Why most university impact studies are flawed

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.)

Categories
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

Categories
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

Categories
Universities

Is connectivity important for universities?

The central paradox of the modern metropolis is that ‘proximity has become ever more valuable as the cost of connecting across long distance has fallen’, writes Ed Glaeser in Triumph of the City. Proximity means people, businesses and universities are packed closely together, enabling new ideas to grow, knowledge to spread and innovation to flourish. Although video conferencing may be free, ideas spread better face-to-face. The growth of knowledge allows the city to triumph.

This thinking isn’t new. In 1890 Alfred Marshall wrote:

When an industry has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from near neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously. Good work is rightly appreciated, inventions and improvements in machinery, in processes and the general organization of the business have their merits promptly discussed: if one man starts a new idea, it is taken up by others and combined with suggestions of their own; and thus it becomes the source of further new ideas.

However, this is not to say that connectivity isn’t important: connectivity is vital for cities.1 Dense, local knowledge economies need to be connected to global markets; they need to be, returning to Gleaser’s analysis, ‘conduits for knowledge’. For example, Bangalore is an ‘urban education hub’, a concentration of IT firms and thousands of skilled workers, and a conduit for knowledge through the co-location of local and international businesses. In a virtuous cycle, the proximity of skilled workers and knowledge firms in turn increases the city’s attractiveness to international businesses and its connectivity.

Connected universities

Higher education underpins these knowledge economies through research, education and training, and providing a space for innovation and creativity. But how important is it for universities themselves to be connected?

Universities can help improve their locality, but also transcend it

Universities are ideally positioned to bridge local, national and international. With their local roots (and many universities were founded to serve their community) and their wider institutional, research and alumni networks, universities can help improve their locality, but also transcend it to help connect their locality to the wider world. And just as isolated cities will struggle to attract skilled workers and international businesses and find it difficult to develop a knowledge-based economy, those universities that aren’t connected will struggle to become conduits of knowledge.2

Bangalore2

Measuring connectivity

I was interested to read that the two largest falls in the 2016 Universitas 21 ranking of national higher education systems were Canada, down three places to ninth, and Bulgaria, down five places to 48th, due mainly to a ‘fall in ranking on connectivity’. The methodology defines connectivity as ‘the two-way flow of information between the higher education sector and the rest of society’. A closer look shows that Canada actually performed quite well on this measure (top ranked for connectivity are Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, the United Kingdom and Belgium) but Sweden and Hungary fell. There are six measures for connectivity:

  1. Proportion of international students in tertiary education, 2013.
  2. Proportion of articles co-authored with international collaborators, 2013.
  3. Number of open access full text files on the web, per head of population, July 2015.
  4. External links that university web domains receive from third parties, per head of population, 2015.
  5. Responses to question ‘Knowledge transfer is highly developed between companies and universities’, asked of business executives in the annual survey by IMD World Development Centre, Switzerland, 2015.
  6. Percentage of university research publications that are co-authored with industry researchers, 2011-13.

In a future post I will brainstorm a wider range of possible connectivity measures. For example, these measures don’t capture connections between city governments and universities. These don’t necessarily need to be international; good connectivity means smaller cities are well linked to their larger neighbours. UN Habitat’s 2016 World Cities Report notes that:

The only certainty about the next few decades is that… uncertainty and risk will become permanent features of society and governance, and this Report argues in favour of “a city that plans,” as opposed to a planned city. Consequently, institutions must also be endowed with the capacity to learn and adapt on a continuous basis. This requires pro-active investment in dynamic regional innovation systems, ideally buttressed by effective metropolitan authorities. If they are, as required, to promote resource-efficient built environments and underlying infrastructures, local governments must support regional innovation systems that connect “green” businesses, universities, think-tanks, social movements, social entrepreneurs and State-owned enterprises. Where these are in short supply locally, agreements can be made with larger urban centres in the country or in other parts of the world. (p.119)

Often universities are at the centre of knowledge economies, or innovation districts. Their exact location is important, yet so are their wider connections. Well-connected cities will often have well-connected universities at their core, and a well-connected university will support – and be supported by – a connected city.

For universities, as with cities, proximity does count, but so does connectivity.

Photo Credit: Bangalore Junctions by Scalino via Compfight cc


  1. And growing in importance. In a book about connected cities, Parag Khanna writes that ‘connectivity is destiny’. ‘Diplomacy among cities is the return of an ancient pattern. But it also dis-intermediates state structures. Cities building physical and institutional connectivity among each other, as well as growing demographic and economic power, is how they become the drivers of this new system’. (See also, ‘are interregional relations the new international relations?’
  2. I would stress that a connected university does not necessarily equal a research-intensive university. Many business-facing institutions or those focussed on opening opportunities to disadvantaged local communities excel in their mission because they are able to lever wider connections in their work. 
Categories
Universities

Are interregional relations the new international relations?

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