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The real university challenge: creating a knowledge economy for all

Professor Sir Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor | Sheffield Hallam University

3 min read Partner content

Above all, universities are institutions grounded in place: we talk of the University of Oxford, the University of Liverpool. My own university – Sheffield Hallam – proudly declares its affiliation to a great city and its historic region. And universities have been great drivers of prosperity for their places.

They do this through what might almost be a magic formula: they are seats of learning, but also centres of innovation.  They attract bright, talented students and they employ extremely able, creative staff. 

Around the country we can see the powerful impacts of universities on their places, from well-established centres of research and innovation like the Cambridge Science Parks through to more recent developments such as my own university’s health and well-being research and innovation cluster at Sheffield’s Olympic Legacy Park.   The government is right to see universities as core drivers of a twenty-first century knowledge economy and right to invest in research and innovation.

But there’s a problem, and one which could become acute.  In the knowledge economy shaped by universities as centres of knowledge creation and dissemination, the geographical distribution of universities looks more and more like a historical accident.  There are universities in Sheffield, Leeds, Exeter and Canterbury, and they drive thriving urban economies.  But Doncaster, Barrow, Chippenham or Thanet are examples of places without universities. 

We could see the next decade as a decade of investment in new university centres – as the recent Times Education Commission envisaged.  But that involves considerable capital outlay, whilst government is prioritising alternatives to university.  A different answer might be more appropriate in a time of constrained public funding and policy pressure to see levelling up reach widely across the nation.

The alternative solution is to challenge universities to do something they have, historically, not always been good at: to work as supportive and collaborative partners with others, with local authorities, with further education colleges and with - especially – the small and medium sized companies which account for the majority of employment in this country.

This means challenging universities to think about how they can reach out from their cities and towns to other places, to think about how they shape innovation and creativity across the country, to think about how, in their operations they are more inclusive organisations.

It means above all, challenging – and supporting through targeted programmes – universities to be connectors of places. It means thinking about universities as long-term and strategic shapers of place through their teaching, their research, their engagement with civic and third sector partners.  It means asking universities to think about when they might lead and when they might support, recognising that this will involve a significant shift in mind-set and style for many. 

But the prize would be worthwhile: a vision of a knowledge economy which genuinely reaches out to all, and which drives improved productivity, better lives and more successful places.

Sheffield Hallam University leads the Civic University Network, a national network of more than 130 universities that aims to maximise the impact of civic universities in their place. Supported by the DfE and UPP Foundation, the Network supports universities across the UK to develop and embed civic aspirations to drive positive societal change. Find out more at

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