Sir Andrew Witty’s Review of Universities and Growth last year provides a strong evidence-based foundation and call-to-action for university engagement in economic development. From R&D and technology commercialisation to engagement with SMEs and LEPs, the report paints a picture of an ever-growing complex economic eco system in which universities play a role.
Whilst we will not trudge down the path of why the review does not articulate the current economic value universities provide through their education and training – we can certainly begin to narrow our focus on targeted local opportunities for development by analysing more detailed Labour Market Information (LMI). The Witty Review highlights broad level needs across the whole of the country and further unpicks broad level comparative advantages at the LEP region level through use of a location quotient. However, effective economic development and strategic planning requires much more insight on specific industries and their characteristics and opportunities at the local level. Otherwise, tactical implementation of strategies, SME engagement and/or Arrow Projects runs the risk of missing the mark.
Understanding the Local Economy is Crucial
Why is this important? National economic issues are typically a compilation of varied and diverse local economic challenges. At the practitioner level, broad strategies often leave those left to complete the work perplexed on relevant “next steps” to implement appropriate tactics to meet strategic goals. How then can a university gain enough economic and market insight to develop a better roadmap toward growth? The answer to this relies heavily on access to detailed LMI, balanced with the tacit knowledge of those involved at a strategic level within the economy – not the simplest of endeavours, but achievable nonetheless. The key lies in understanding both the broad information and the detail – e.g. seeing the forest and the trees.
The Witty Review paints a picture of the economic forest in Britain and highlights many university best practices in achieving a vision of economic growth through university engagement. However, narrowing focus through rigorous analysis of opportunity, cemented in data-driven applications and local knowledge provides a compelling format for local engagement, as well as increasing probability of success. The point is straightforward: universities need to use localised, detailed LMI to form the best narrative amongst multiple civic organisations and build a clear path towards economic progress.
How Can Data Help?
What types of data should be considered? To answer this question, we must first understand the economic development goals that the institution wishes to achieve. Are the goals centred on creating jobs? Connecting resources? Creating wealth? Or maybe all three?
For a starting point to understanding specific data characteristics of industry strengths and capabilities that can be leveraged to develop focus, the attached PDF setting out the methods involved should provide some useful guidance. To achieve full effect of identifying opportunity and local targets, 4-digit SIC analysis is recommended at the unitary authority level. This level of data-driven rigor provides a clearer picture of industries and sectors to target and engage.
Once in place, these varying perspectives can be leveraged to create the right narrative for the area, whether its inward investment opportunity, supporting growth industries, intervening in stagnant (or declining) industries, introducing new technology into the marketplace, promoting wealth producing sectors or supporting sectors with high economic knock-on effects.
Having worked across several local development strategies, a necessary part of this level of analysis involves defining a clear process of planning and engagement, using the above information as a starting point. Experience has led to the conclusion that consensus-building amongst civic leadership is critical for success. When consensus is achieved, the commitment toward pooling resources between the university and other civic partners, as well as aligning activities can be more easily facilitated. The following flow chart highlights a workable process for achieving consensus and narrowing focus:
Once the process is complete, actions and activities to engage in sector strategy approaches can be further described and enhanced, using the data, narrative and dialogue of the leadership and key stakeholders – thereby achieving a localised version of Witty’s university-led economic development vision.
What about Talent Development as an Economic Development Function?
The above describes a process by which a university can assist in building sector focus for economic development within the local economy. However, universities also play another crucial role in the economy: talent development. Although this is not a topic largely covered in the Witty Review, the development of talent and skills into the labour force has substantial economic value. In fact, the latest Higher Education Business and Community Interaction Survey showed that of the 161 publicly funded UK HE institutions, access to higher education remained the single most important contribution universities see themselves as making to economic development.
Whilst access to higher education gets a learner through the door of the institution, alignment of courses and degrees within higher education gets the learner into employment. Given that universities educate and train generations of workers, sector focus then provides a conduit for skills focus and further demand-driven skills development. LMI also has a role to play in this arena, as occupations and skills are inextricably linked to industry. However, to understand this, we need to take a more discerning view of the economic forest and view sectors in terms of the occupations and people they employ.
Developing Economic and Skills Strategies
In LMI vernacular, industry ‘staffing patterns’ serve as a good first base for understanding occupation and skill needs within industries. If industry sector focus is achieved through the strategic planning activities described above, then industry projections are already in place. All that really needs to be completed is an overlay of occupation staffing to industry jobs (e.g. break the total jobs within the industry into representative occupations). Additional perspectives of occupation needs (e.g. turnover) can be gathered from the Labour Force Survey in ONS or from EMSI, which will round out the area-wide need for the specific occupation classifications found within the sector.
Armed with this information and the sector information above, universities can now engage across multiple avenues of economic and skills strategies, including:
- Business workforce needs
- Small business/entrepreneurship opportunities (e.g. sectors with large levels of micro enterprises may present opportunities to develop entrepreneurial focused courses/degrees)
- Support for Knowledge Transfer Partnerships that leverage the capabilities of the university’s sector expertise and students
- Addressing talent gaps in skills supply at both the sector and economy wide perspective
The information covered above paints a feasible path forward for universities to more effectively (and efficiently) accelerate the vision of Witty. Complexities within economic and social ecosystems are typically better addressed when businesses and civic organisations have established a common foundation, communication and language system. Informative, detailed LMI designed for strategic decision-making and tactical implementation serves as an effective tool in addressing these complexities.
If your university is seeking to understand and quantify opportunities, target sectors and course alignment within your local and regional economy, EMSI is happy to explore these avenues with you. For more information please contact Andy Durman (firstname.lastname@example.org).