Using the regenerative powers of universities

In the last few years, I have had the opportunity to visit Bournemouth twice. The story from my taxi drivers and people I spoke to in the street has a remarkable consistency: Bournemouth has been revitalised by its university. It attracted young and talented people, created jobs well beyond the university itself, and transformed the culture of the town.

We tend to think of universities as sites of learning. Yet they are, or can be, much more than that. They have an impact on towns and cities that go well beyond the classroom walls. They have the potential to be engines of revitalisation. Educated young people who spend three or four years in a university are more likely to remain there than are others who have never been to a town likely to go there to seek jobs. Especially so for towns and cities that have a reputation for being in decline.

In this weekend’s Financial Times is an article (paywall) about the ‘left behind’ town of Blackpool. It lists the many problems the town has and, in particular, how there is a continuing exodus of skilled people and an influx of the poorer, the less healthy, and the less skilled. It seems that left behind towns, like Blackpool, end up in a downward spiral because their low costs attract those who cannot afford to live elsewhere, while the more talented, higher earning people move elsewhere.

Another article (paywall) points out that economists have noticed this effect before. They have suggested that building skills and education must be a vital part of trying to increase the viability of such towns. It is here that centres of higher education can play a role. Look at what this has achieved in towns like Pikeville, Kentucky: “It is not too much to say that the University of Pikeville is saving the city.”

UK universities are essentially funded mostly by public money – directly or through student loans underwritten by the government, and most of which will never be repaid. It is therefore time that the broader social role that universities could play should be examined as part of government policy. One approach would be to require major universities to start having outposts in left-behind-towns.

Blackpool is surrounded by university cities – Liverpool, Lancaster, Preston, Manchester. There is no need to start yet another university or higher education college in Blackpool. An outpost shared by the many surrounding institutions would be a practical and lower cost approach to giving Blackpool the kind of boost that might well turn it around.

Taxpayers pay for higher education – one way or the other. It is time that there is some policy directed investment that can harness the broader social benefit that higher education institutions can bring.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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