In a provocative 2010 blog, Matthew Taylor, The Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts, claimed to have detected an ‘an inverse relationship between the academic standing of a university and its enthusiasm for’ developing strong relations with ‘the town, city or region it inhabits’.
That was a caricature even then, but like the best caricature, got at a kernel of truth. Universities pride themselves on the ‘universal’ character of their interests and ideas and the cosmopolitan nature of their values, and it’s all too easy, in that context, for local and allegiances to be viewed as of secondary importance.
But that caricature is becoming increasingly hard to sustain as universities have started to embrace a more rooted conception of their role – a development encouraged by the recent Commission Civic Universities, Chaired by Lord Kerslake and reflected in the growing interest in the role of universities as ‘anchor institutions’ .
There are various ways in which universities can contribute to the civic life of their homes places. They can do it as employers, land owners, investors and of course educators. But they can also contribute as hubs of expertise in research and innovation.
It’s true that governments have long recognised the vital role that university R&D has to play in increasing productivity and supporting economic growth. And we have seen a growing appreciation, over recent years, for the need for a place-based approach to commercialising university R&D activity, with local partnerships and strategies tailored to the strengths and opportunities of a region. But there is no reason why the focus of placed based research and innovation partnerships need to be limited to a narrowly economic agenda. Our towns and cities don’t just face economic but social and environmental challenges as well, and the academic research community well position to help address them.
And it’s not just a university’s home city or region that stands to gain from close working with academic researchers. The relationship can be win-win. Yes, local authorities, businesses, and civil society groups can benefit from the knowledge, independence and innovative capacity of academic experts but academic experts benefit from the insights, connections, power and influence of policy makers, businesses and civil organisations.
This is the background for an exciting new collaboration we are launching this week. The London Policy and Research Partnership (LondonRapp) will work to promote closer working between London’s academic research community and London government for a better London. The Partnership is being led by the Greater London Authority and University of London, with support from CAPE – a nationally funded, Research England, programme, aimed as promoting research and policy exchange. But our organisations are leading the partnership, not owning it. We want to engage and support researchers, policymakers, businesses and communities across the metropolis and beyond.
It goes without saying that both London’s system of governance and its HE sector are unique and uniquely complicated. London has two relatively powerful levels of city government – the Greater London Authority and 33 boroughs – and over 40 universities, employing thousands of researchers. But the Partnership offers a framework for matching researchers and policy makers as well as developing new jointly developed initiatives.
We are ambitious for ourselves, and in the longer run look forward to developing programmes and projects that bring together the widest possible range of London organisations to tackle some of London’s biggest challenges.
It feels as if partnerships between academic researchers and large cities are in their infancy. But they have huge potential. Our partnership puts London in a position to lead the way.
The London Policy and Research Partnership was launched 11.00-12.00, Tuesday 20 July, with speakers including Jules Pipe, Deputy Mayor of London for Planning, Regeneration and Skills, GLA, Sir Geoff Mulgan, Professor of Collective Intelligence, Social Innovation and Public Policy at University College London, and Sarah Chaytor, Co-Chair of the Capabilities in Academic-Policy Engagement (CAPE).