Government should not try to predict winners, they should set in place policies that allow winners to grow and thrive

Published: 24 February 2017 at 09:33

In late January the Government released their Green Paper outlining how they plan to develop the country’s industrial strategy.

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Visit: Green paper document.

This long and detailed paper contains many proposals linked to 10 strategic pillars. Whilst there is a long journey between the Green Paper and funded, implemented policy, much in this document is of great relevance to ARU as we formulate our strategy. The 10 pillars that are being considered are:

  1. Investing in science, research and innovation
  2. Developing skills
  3. Upgrading infrastructure
  4. Supporting businesses to start and grow
  5. Improving procurement
  6. Encouraging trade and inward investment
  7. Delivering affordable energy and clean growth
  8. Cultivating world-leading sectors
  9. Driving growth across the whole country
  10. Creating the right institutions to bring together sectors and places

There are aspects of each of the pillars that are relevant for us as we grow and enhance our role as an anchor institution supporting economic, cultural and social growth and wellbeing across our region. I will not comment in detail about each of the pillars but will reflect on some of the key points that we have been, and will continue to make in response to the Green Paper. Firstly, the overall approach that is being taken is welcomed although there are aspects where we think the possible solutions proposed miss the mark or where there are notable omissions.

Obviously pillar 1, a well-funded and responsive research and innovation support and funding system is vital to all universities. It will be important that the mechanisms implemented appropriately balance the needs of fundamental research and closer to market innovation. In addition it will be important that the funding mechanisms are able to foster, encourage and support international research and innovation partnerships given the potential impact of leaving the EU.

Pillar 2 speaks to the importance of having a population which has the broad skills base required for the UK to thrive. Few would dispute this premise, but the mechanisms to achieve this successfully are far less clear. The paper concentrates on creating a stronger technical education pathway rather than considering the education system as a whole. I would argue strongly that what is needed is not a new category of institution but systematic changes to better create a more coherent and integrated approach to both compulsory and post-compulsory education and training.

I am not convinced that we need to create Institutes of Technology, rather we should be looking to strengthen our current FE provision and working to ensure better linkages and partnerships between FE, HE and technology-based industry.

We need to ensure that all students are able to benefit from high quality STEM education from an early age. As currently constructed our education pathways encourage very early specialisation and I am just as concerned about students opting out of humanities and language-rich subjects as I am about those who drop science and maths. I am a strong advocate for approaches like the International Baccalaureate than deliver a much wider curriculum that the current 3-4 A level model. Given the very rapidly changing nature of jobs and the fact that an 18 year-old student is looking to a career of 50+ years, surely we should be ensuring that individuals are given a rounded and balanced education that will enable them to adapt to the many roles that they are likely to have rather than rigid pathways at a young age.

The emphasis on infrastructure in pillar 3 is welcomed and the needs for this are self-evident across our region. My only concern is that the almost limitless demands that infrastructure investment will place on budgets and the risk that these demands will limit the funding available for other aspects of the strategy.

We need to ensure that there are suitable mechanisms to support new and small businesses to work with their local university to carry out research and innovation to support their growth. These approaches must be administratively simple, affordable for the business and support the university to cover the full costs of the R&I activity. We know that there are many businesses with good ideas who struggle to find the funds to support the R&I required and at the same time universities have few, if any, income streams that can support this at the level required. I believe that there is considerable benefit to be obtained for the country in getting this right.

Whilst you might think that there was little to be commented on with respect to pillar 5 that speaks to procurement, I believe that there are considerable opportunities to use this to foster a stronger innovation ecosystem both regionally and nationally. I will give one example - if the NHS could be given a encouraged and supported to procure goods and services in a way that encourages and supports innovation, we could grow rapidly our ability to develop our medical devices/medical engineering strategy, encourage international investment in the region, create a more stimulating work environment and potentially bring new devices and treatments to patients more rapidly.

I would reflect, somewhat ironically, that the paper speaks strongly to the need to encourage trade and inward investment (pillar 6) and encourage world-leading sectors (pillar 8) and yet at the same time is not supporting international higher education, a sector in which we are regarded very highly and where current policies are driving students to other countries.

My other comment with respect to pillar 8 is that no mention is made of the creative and cultural industries, something of great importance to both ARU and the wider region. We need to lobby hard to ensure that the resulting policy acknowledges this and supports appropriately the activities in this area that underpin a lot of our current regional success.

The final commentary in pillar 10, about ensuring that the synergies of sector and place are best exploited, is to be welcomed. It will be important that the approaches taken are very granular and appropriately devolved - in our region the issues and opportunities in Cambridge, Peterborough and Chelmsford are very different indeed.

This last comment links to a final overarching comment and that is my view that government should not try to predict winners but rather set in place policies that allow winners to grow and thrive - in short the creation of the education and innovation ecosystem that we are talking about.

Have a good weekend.

Iain