Wise Investment; Universities and Colleges Are Good Business for Their Towns -and Increasingly a Force for Good on the Wider Economy Too, as Glyn Mon Hughes Reports

Article excerpt

HERE was a time when town rather disliked gown. University cities put up with students and breathed a sigh of relief when they went down.

Times change. Come autumn, hundreds of fresh faces wander around university cities bringing a considerable economic impact. The population of Liverpool, for instance, rises by 50,000 -around 11pc-when universities and colleges are in full swing.Manchester, with a massive higher education concentration, boasts Europe's largest student campus.

At Bangor, the impact is even greater as 6,500 students add to the city's population of 11,100.

Education, therefore, creates a major economic impact.

But it reaches far beyond running further and higher education institutions where there is a concentration of reasonably well-paid academic and administrative posts,plus necessary ancillary services. Education acts as catalyst for the promotion of Wales as a first-rate centre of excellence and a place where business can survive and thrive.

Beyond that, higher education spins out its own businesses, enterprises which often grow into major companies. The University of Wales, Bangor,and Wrexham-based North East Wales Institute are crucibles of entrepreneurship.

``We operate over a wide area with many types of involvement,'' said Andrew Parry,of NEWI. ``We provide both students and graduates to work on specific schemes. For graduates, there's KTP, the Knowledge Transfer Programme.

``This involves someone going to a company and working up to two years on a project. For example a few years ago someone developed a new pump, exactly what a local glue maker needed as a better method for dispensing glue. The scheme is government-sponsored, so the company gets significant assistance.

``There's Cymru Prosper Wales, a similar scheme, but for undergraduates. It's an eight-week programme. It's very popular and there's no problem whatsoever getting people involved.''

It's a similar area to that in which Dick Griffiths of the Welsh Development Agency's Knowhow Wales works, a scheme set up four years ago and now proving its worth throughout Wales.

``We have two areas of operation,'' said Griffiths. ``We sometimes visit a company and ask what areas of expertise they are seeking, then locate that expertise. We look locally in Wales first. If we need to go further, we do so.''

There's no specific funding for projects but the team possesses some funding to promote universities to local businesses.

``The range of skills we need to address varies too,''added Griffiths.``Sometimes it's a `quick-fix' contract for a particular research project. It may be a graduate placement or even a longer-term solution.''

NEWI is one of Wales's foremost institutions when it comes to spin-out projects where academics put an idea into practice.

``We're opening up a number of incubator units at our Regent Street site in November,'' said Parry, ``looking specifically at digital media in the first place, something which the Assembly Government is keen on as it's a strong Welsh growth area. …