Professor David Eastwood Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham presents a summary of this report in this video
The University of Birmingham has just published a report detailing the economic impact of the University. The report undertaken by Oxford Economics attempts to be a comprehensive analysis of all the economic levers the University pulls.
In summary it looks at employment, purchasing, student income and expenditure, R and D grants, income from conferences and other areas of impact in a wide ranging review.
It concludes that overall the University through direct, indirect and induced effects generated over £1bn in additional spending in the West Midlands in 2011/12. A really impressive contributor to the local economy. This translates to a £530m value added contribution to the regions economy supporting over 11,800 jobs. It compares this to the regions football clubs and concludes that the University adds almost twice the added value compared to the sum of the 8 largest football clubs in the region. An interesting comparison but it might have been useful to compare as well with Universities in other cities to get a proper feel for relative impact.
There are however a few areas where I think the report or perhaps the University is weak. There is much talk in the academic and professional press about the role of research led Universities in triple helix approaches to economic innovation. The section on research impact hardly moves past publications. This might be because of data shortages or because there is less of a story to tell. The University according to the figures presented in the report earns circa £140m in research income a year, and certainly if that is coming from the EU there is increasing interest in its translation to new spin-out companies, patents and the broader commercialisation of knowledge. The report references 19 spin out companies but looking at the detail of these companies many of them are long established. There is no analysis of the flow of new companies, the income the University gets from these companies, the employment in these companies or from the patents it registered. It indicates there have been 6 new patents in the 2011/12. But says nothing on the stock of patents that must exist. It is I understand a co owner of Birmingham Research Park – its impact could be detailed or at least referred to and compared for instance to Birmingham Science Park (Aston) but isn’t.
So we have to ask ourselves – Is this a question of lack of activity or lack of tracking of activity; probably a bit of both. I am aware that for instance jointly with Warwick University through Birmingham Science City Research Alliance they have drawn down circa £60m in ERDF to work on commercially focussed research opportunities working with the private sector. These and other types of similar research grants must have economic outputs in terms of new products and services that should be tracked. So in these cases perhaps the University is just not on top of this information? But perhaps as well the University is not getting enough economic output from its research income?
Another aspect that is not well covered is the potential for graduate entrepreneurship. The University is and has been involved in various entrepreneurship schemes. It recently for instance held an Innovation Competition in the Business school. It is also part of the regional BSEEN programme and prior to this the SPEED programme As this link and video demonstrate this has been economically very effective but is this captured by the report; it seems not. Again comparison against other Universities in this field would be really useful to judge its effectiveness and impact.
Now having links with the University I am aware that there is a push to step up innovation and entrepreneurship and sometimes both the reality and the data that cover that reality lags behind. It would have been useful to recognise that however and perhaps to illustrate benefits by talking about examples and work underway to quantify the impact.
Other areas where it seems on the surface to under perform is on the economic impact of the Universities cultural attractions. It has few and since the Barber Institute was finished in the 1930’s it has severely under invested in this area.
The recent opening of the Bramall Music Centre and the proposed new Olympic SizedSwimming pool represent a real potential turning point for the University and its relations with the wider city on the cultural/sporting front. Comparisons again with other Universities would be useful; so for instance Warwick University has the premier Arts and Cultural attraction in the West Midlands; the Warwick Arts Centre, Birmingham University has nothing on that scale. The future impact of this new investment and existing jewels like the Barber will be down to how well they are marketed, programmed and integrated into wider city life. A recent good sign of intention was the Arts and Science Festival that was well publicised outside of the University.
Now I must confess to having some interest in the University of Birmingham; both my parents graduated from it and I am now a visiting lecturer; so I both want it to tell its story well but also to achieve its full potential. As a Global University with hopefully global impact this report whilst meticulous in many areas could be much better and if activities are weaker in some areas than others it could detail how the University is upping its game as the success of Birmingham University is crucial to the success of Birmingham.
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