Closing speech UA Summit 2016: Leading the way in our cities and regions

steve west

Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor of University of West of England (UWE Bristol) and Chair, University Alliance.

Closing speech given by Professor Steve West at the UA Summit 2016 at Coventry University on Thursday 2 June 2016

Thank you Maddalaine. And thank you to John and all the team here at Coventry for being such fantastic hosts. Thank you our participants for your engagement and contributions.

Today, we’ve heard about the challenges facing our country – the need for skilled, entrepreneurial graduates, for support for innovative businesses and for research with impact.  As a group of universities, we are ready to play our part in powering the UK’s knowledge economy – as we saw on the UA video this morning. We are place shapers, makers and powerhouses for innovation and creativity. So let’s make sure as Government hands out university status like confetti we remind them of this alongside learning, teaching and research.

We know that this can only be done if universities open their doors to people who would not previously have gone to university – and their minds to teaching in new ways.  But always with a commitment to excellence, and a desire to work collaboratively with business, the professions and communities.

The scale and pace of the changes we’re currently seeing in the policy landscape facing universities hasn’t been witnessed for decades.

A White Paper and Bill – currently going through Parliament – which introduce a new regulatory landscape, seeking to empower students and reward teaching excellence. We must ensure it does what was intended.

A shake up of the research and innovation system, merging Innovate UK and the seven research councils into a single body, with greater emphasis on cross-cutting projects, tackling real-world challenges.

And a Prime Minister and government who have been clear about their expectations for widening participation – that no one with the talent to benefit from a university education should be held back from doing so.

The direction of travel of government policy presents huge opportunities to us as a group of institutions: we have always cared about getting our students the best possible employment outcomes; we are innovative and supportive of innovation; we are expert in research with impact.

University Alliance has engaged constructively with the government’s proposals, urging them to guard against unintended consequences and working to ensure the new system is constructed in such a way that it is both functional and fair.

As the only group of universities above benchmark for both recruiting and retaining students from disadvantaged backgrounds, we’ve pushed for all measures in the TEF to be properly benchmarked and contextualised. And we’ve strongly defended the principle that excellent research should be supported wherever it is found.

I’m pleased that Ministers have heeded this call, accepting our recommendation that Quality Related research funding should get the protection it deserves and that Innovate UK should retain its business facing nature – within UK Research & Innovation. We hope that they will also continue to provide dedicated funds for knowledge transfer.

This will enable us to build on our work supporting thousands of businesses – particularly the SMEs which are the lifeblood of the UK economy.

As the Higher Education and Research Bill proceeds through Parliament, we will continue to work with MPs, officials and ministers for a system that supports a diverse, sustainable and world-leading Higher Education sector.

But we aren’t taking our eyes off the bigger picture. White Papers and ministers come and go. We need to keep focus. We live in an ageing society, with growing public health challenges, where inequality damages the life chances of too many, and with a skills gap holding back our capacity to grow as an economy, as well as individuals’ chance to succeed.

The IFS’ recent study of graduate employment couldn’t have been clearer: in Britain today, overwhelmingly the income of your parents still determines your employment outcomes. Such inequality is not desirable or acceptable.

And let’s not forget that without Alliance institutions, the picture would have been worse.  If the new regional leaders, with new powers devolved from Whitehall, work with us, it can be even better. Decisions made by local leaders, who are closer to the people they serve, tend to be better… or at least should be better.

We have never hidden away in ivory towers.  We have always stood shoulder to shoulder with our civic and business partners, committed to supporting our cities and regions in enterprising, creative and innovative ways, bringing new solutions to complex problems. We must build on this heritage and accelerate our impact.

This year we’ve looked in detail at four areas where universities are making the difference, with the capacity to contribute further still.

Firstly, health and wellbeing.

Sweeping changes in the way the NHS is organised, coupled with a shift towards prevention and devolution of responsibilities, have led some to question how services can be responsive to local needs in an increasingly fragmented system.

As anchor institutions, universities are uniquely placed to support long-term stewardship, enabling people to live healthy, happy and productive  lives by integrating the complex web of organisations that comprise the local health and social care  ecosystem.

In my own city, Bristol Health Partners: a strategic partnership bringing together universities, the City Council with NHS Trusts and Commissioning groups – illustrates how this can be achieved. Its success stories include more elderly patients receiving the right  hip replacements and fewer people committing self-harm. Adding this to the work our Academic Health Science Network is undertaking and we can see real progress in delivering high quality outcomes for users through innovation and constructive service challenge.

Research with impact – across disciplines – can improve wellbeing and build healthy communities. Across our universities, this has led to neighbourhoods designed to encourage active lifestyles; the development of new devices to support assisted living, and new ways of conceptualising health challenges.

Sheffield Hallam’s Lab4Living brings together researchers from both design and healthcare disciplines, using technology to help people of all ages and abilities live with dignity.  While Salford’s Institute for Dementia and Greenwich’s Centre for Positive Ageing engage academics from many disciplines to understand and address the challenges posed by demographic change.

We are training the leaders of tomorrow’s health workforce, educating a quarter of nurses, midwives and allied health professionals, preparing and training them in real-world setting like at Kingston’s Paramedic Clinical Simulation Centre which presents students with the real-life scenarios they’ll deal with in the field.

Secondly, improving life chances and creating opportunities for all to succeed is a core part of our mission.

The Prime Minister has rightly set stretching targets for higher education – doubling entry for disadvantaged students and a 20 per cent increase in the number of BME students, with matched improvements in completion rates and progression into work.

These ambitious targets will only be met if the whole sector plays its part. It is my view that Alliance Universities can and should lead the way on this agenda – sharing our best practice and insights to the wider HE landscape.

We are the leaders. Colleagues at Kingston have cut the BME attainment gap by a third. The University of Hertfordshire has seen dropout rates for disadvantaged students almost halve. Forging sustained relationships with schools, we’ve successfully raised aspirations and attainment.

Our track record demonstrates how the government’s aims can be realised in practice. We are part of the solution.

Our commitment to addressing inequality goes beyond our students .  We tackle inequality in our cities and regions by empowering our communities and building resilience.

Like the University of Huddersfield’s award winning Contemporary Music Festival which, together with local cultural and community groups, engages elderly and marginalised members of the community through performance and creative arts.

Or Teesside University, which is working with Middlesbrough’s refugee population – Britain’s second largest – to provide education, training and support. The University of Salford is supporting the ‘Pendleton Together’ regeneration project: creating a new community of 1,600 new and 1,200 refurbished homes, harnessing insights from research in design and engaging current students in real-world challenges to create a modern, sustainable place to live.

Together, we are making our cities and regions fairer places, where everyone – regardless of age and background – has the chance to succeed.

Thirdly, we are powering dynamic, innovative regional economies – driving local growth and boosting productivity.

As we have heard this afternoon, too often innovation has been viewed by policymakers purely through the lens of commercialising research, and academics ‘spinning out’ new companies.

But in reality, innovation is primarily a business activity. And in our economy, the vast majority of businesses are small and medium sized enterprises, accounting for 60 per cent of private sector employment.

Universities provide the space, knowledge, talent and access to financial support which local businesses need to start up and grow, fostering the innovation which helps more established firms boost productivity, in turn driving greater prosperity for all.

Like many Vice-Chancellors across the Alliance, I represent higher education on the board of a Local Enterprise Partnership. This ensures my university supports the long-term growth strategies of our cities and regions.

Alliance universities across the country are expert in providing a ‘one stop shop’ for business support, opening the door to opportunities to benefit from tailored services and networking for small firms. Like at Liverpool John Moores University’s Open Labs, which help firms develop and exploit technologies and new processes.

As the research and innovation landscape is remoulded by government, and as the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine plough ahead, we need to see greater recognition in policy of the role universities can play. Ensuring that universities are represented on every LEP, whilst making it easier to work collaboratively across administrative boundaries, would be a step in the right direction.

Finally – and most importantly – Alliance universities are equipping graduates with the skills, knowledge and attributes, and importantly the resilience to succeed.

This morning, we heard about our skills challenges: gaps and shortages and persistent low productivity as a country.

According to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, by 2024 almost half of all UK employment will be in highly-skilled occupations.

It has become a truism that many of today’s graduates will work in – or even invent – new industries which don’t yet exist. Already, we see how the pace of technological change and automation is disrupting industries left, right and centre. Old notions of a ‘job for life’ are becoming a thing of the past. The World Economic Forum has predicted that over 7 million jobs will become obsolete – and that’s just in the next half decade.

For Britain to compete globally, we need more job-ready graduates with the transferrable skills, agility and resilience to thrive in an era of unprecedented technological change.

An ability to work across borders and alongside those from other cultures is no longer only essential for those doing jobs overseas, but for all employees in an increasingly interconnected world.

Being entrepreneurial is no longer solely the preserve of those who go on to start their own businesses, but an essential skill for many employees.

And – more than ever before – learning and gaining new skills isn’t just something you do while studying for a first undergraduate degree as a young person. It is welcome that ministers have emphasised the importance of lifetime learning, and we see huge potential for innovative, technology-driven solutions to open up opportunities for those at every stage of life.

This country has been held back for too long by the idea of a rigid divide and separation between ‘academic’ education on one hand, and technical and professional education on the other. No one can afford an education which doesn’t prepare them for the workplace.

Facilities like the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering here in Coventry make this a reality. The ‘factory on the faculty floor’ developed in partnership with automotive manufacturer Unipart gives students the opportunity to learn and experiment on cutting edge machinery and work on live manufacturing projects, revolutionising STEM education.

Historically, those taking technical routes after school have faced a glass ceiling, and a lack of higher qualifications. I was pleased to be invited to sit on an Expert Panel, Chaired by Lord Sainsbury, on post-16 education, looking in detail at how more routes can be opened up – our findings will be published shortly. My hope is that this review of the Apprenticeship  landscape will be extended to link levels 2 to 5 to the higher levels attained in universities.

Alliance universities have already seized the initiative, pioneering degree apprenticeship programmes which combine advanced technical skills with academic rigour, meeting specific skills gaps identified by employers.

We are the universities with the know-how, history and track record to deliver the employees of tomorrow. We are great collaborators, challengers and problems solvers.

We are locally rooted, globally connected, outward looking and ambitious for Britain’s future. Universities committed to delivering for students, communities and the world – let’s go do it!

Thank you.

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