Building Wales’ Regions

Professor Medwin Hughes, Vice-Chancellor of University of Wales Trinity St  David, explains how universities can strengthen Wales’ regions, preparing them to meet the challenges we face in the 21st century. 

This article originally appeared in the Western Mail

The role universities play in supporting Wales’ economy as well as its civic and social infrastructure, is critical and well-documented, generating around £5bn in output to the Welsh economy.

In their communities and regions, universities create jobs and provide economic spin-offs. They are spurs for investment and entrepreneurship.

Universities enhance the quality of life for people across the nation – as economic engines, investors in the built environment and as conduits for international links between students and professionals attracted to work and study in Wales’ higher education sector from around the world. And they play pivotal roles in Wales’ foundational economy.

The role universities play as anchors for progress is a long-standing one. Universities Wales’ manifesto for the 2021 Senedd elections, Building Wales’ Future outlines just how important higher education is and will be to the nation’s regions.

Universities can deliver direct benefits to communities through funding while also acting as conduits for other organisations and businesses – which might have smaller administrative capacity – to access regional investment opportunities.

Our work generating graduate start-ups feeds into regional economies and supports employment objectives. Beyond that, universities have also demonstrated an ability to leverage regional funding to secure additional investment to Wales.

The long-established roots of many of Wales’ higher education institutions and their strong local presence only enhances their impact. They are connected, they have relationships with local business, and they spend on local, Welsh, goods and services.

Universities Wales’ 2018 report, the Economic Impact of Higher Education in Wales, illustrates this well.

Of the £2.67bn of Welsh gross value added (GVA) generated by universities and their students, £561m was in local authority areas that did not have a university presence. The reach of a university goes beyond its locality.

It’s a similar story in terms of jobs creation, with 49,216 jobs created by Welsh universities and 11,024 of those jobs in parts of Wales that did not have a university presence.

Welsh universities are accredited Living Wage employers, signed up to the Code of Practice on Ethical Employment in Supply Chains, established to help ensure workers in public sector supply chains in Wales are employed in a fair and ethical way.

This has an impact, not simply on a university’s immediate community, but on its wider region.

The place of universities within their regions will grow in importance as aspirations to strengthen the foundational economy are met.

Universities, as well as being part of the foundational economy in their own right, are also a key to a thriving foundational economy more broadly. Our universities’ staff and students drive demand in key sectors such as hospitality, retail, housing and personal services. Universities provide a skilled workforce, something the foundational economy will increasingly rely on. For example, the health sector, one of the pillars of the foundational economy, will need graduates to fill a range of roles as it continues to grow.

And universities act as powerhouses for entrepreneurship too, with regions the beneficiaries of this dynamism.

Students and graduates, equipped with new skills and experience, are among the best at spotting opportunities and finding solutions to problems.

Wales outperforms the rest of the UK on the number of graduate start-ups we have per capita, and these start-ups are more likely to last three years or more than those elsewhere in the UK.

Student and graduate start-ups will be an important part of Wales’ future economic prosperity.

The support that universities offer these start-ups is broad including practical assistance on office space, bursaries to help with setup costs, and support in identifying and securing investment opportunities.

For the business community, universities provide important training support which is helping Wales’ workforce remain skilled and competitive.

According to latest figures from HEFCW, in 2018/19, 287,004 learner days were delivered by Welsh higher education institutions for continuing professional development.

These are real world examples of the impact the sector is having on the nation’s regions.

On top of this, we face a very different Wales once the pandemic is over.

Over the last year we have quickly had to change how we function as a society. We’ve changed the way we work, we are rethinking how we travel and even how our towns and cities are designed and planned, with placemaking key to that. As we see the way people travel and work change, the role our universities play, and their geographic spread across Wales, will make their role as anchors and placemakers even more important.

A distinct regional approach is increasingly being taken across Wales, with universities playing a role in providing both training and investment as well as opportunities for new business and jobs creation.

Ever since our nation’s universities were founded, they have provided a public benefit to people in Wales.

Today, with a collegiate, multi-sectoral approach – with universities as key partners – we can make our regions stronger and even better positioned to meet the challenges we face in the 21st century.