Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Centre Sparks

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Centre Sparks

Article excerpt

Universities outside London can do more to drive regional growth, and the chancellor may help them to do so, thinks Jim O'Neill

I have spent the past 12 months, as chair of the RSA City Growth Commission, thinking hard about how we might boost UK economic growth in the major urban areas outside London.

As a macroeconomist, my focus was on ideas with the scope and scale to contribute to national growth over the long term. In concentrating on the 15 largest metropolitan areas, we assumed that the economic success of London was not some unsustainable bubble and that there were aspects of the capital's strength that might be replicated.

Early in our discussions, it was noted that although London dominates the UK in terms of economic success, our excellence in higher education is much more widely distributed.

While London's elite universities always feature towards the top in global league tables, the UK has 29 universities ranked in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2014-15, including Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol and Sheffield.

On my travels around the country as part of the RSA commission, it was uplifting to observe the vitality that student populations bring to many cities. Indeed, in a number of them, universities were responsible for educating and employing up to 10 per cent of the urban population - a remarkable figure, and one that cannot be ignored.

This shaped our search for bold ideas to boost economic growth in two significant ways.

First, as outlined in our report UniverCities: The Knowledge to Power UK Metros, we looked at the idea of encouraging graduates to stay in the cities where they had studied to find or create employment.

Graduates, even those from before my student days in Sheffield in the 1970s, have long found the siren call of London so seductive that a decision to return home after gaining a degree has been far from inevitable. But should not universities - or more pertinently, perhaps, local authorities - do more to encourage talented people to stay on where they have studied?

The commission was highly conscious that the prime focus of universities must be to maintain excellence in learning and teaching, and that contributing to the local urban economy should not distract from this, so we put much of the onus on local policymakers to drive key initiatives.

With this in mind, we recommended the establishment of a "Metro Investment Fund for Higher Education", which could help to fund the following: a "refreshers' week", in which graduating students would learn about the job opportunities in the region; an online "graduate clearing" system, helping to pair up talent with local opportunities; the promotion of more entrepreneurial initiatives, including sandwich years and investment in start-up companies via local venture capital funds; the expansion of graduate entrepreneurial visas to allow foreign students to stay in the country for longer than the current system; and "golden handcuff" schemes, to be offered by particular industries and sectors. …

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