The role for universities in driving growth and delivering the new economic action plan

Professor Julie Lydon, Chair, Universities Wales

This week the Welsh Government published its new economic action plan. The plan signals a change of approach for the Welsh Government including how it funds and supports business and what it considers priorities for investment. For us in universities, the publication of the plan provides an opportunity to reflect on the role of higher education in the Welsh economy, and the ways in which universities can help deliver the Welsh Government’s goals.

The economic action plan lists five calls to action for Wales which include decarbonisation, a focus on high quality employment and skills development, research and development, innovation and entrepreneurship, and trade. Universities make valuable contributions across these areas and have a fundamental role in powering the Welsh economy. In 2013-14 alone, Welsh universities generated £4.5 billion of output in Wales and nearly 50,000 jobs. There is an opportunity for universities, through the plan, to build upon these contributions and support the Welsh Government in delivering their economic goals.

It should come as no surprise that a key area for universities is in providing education and skills to people in Wales. The plan rightly highlights the challenges posed by technology and artificial intelligence and the risk that technological change poses to many jobs in Wales and across the world. Many of the jobs that people do now will undergo significant changes and we can work with businesses to help them prepare for such changes.

We are also an aging country, with the proportion of people in Wales over the age of 50 set to continue to increase in the coming decades. These changes to the workplace and the workforce mean that it will become ever more important to find ways to provide people of all ages with opportunities to study and train. Recent changes such as the new student support package for part-time learners in Wales will help support this and universities are already looking at new ways of delivering higher education including through degree apprenticeships.

The plan also talks about the need to encourage entrepreneurship, and universities have a role here too. Wales has long punched above its weight in student entrepreneurship with Wales accounting for over 12% of UK graduate start-ups despite having 5% of the student population. A renewed focus on how we support and help grow these companies is essential.

Supporting entrepreneurship and collaborating with business are also key parts of the research and innovation work our universities do in Wales. Research and innovation are major drivers for prosperity and growth. This work brings tangible benefits to people and businesses in Wales. In the last Research Excellence Framework, Wales was found to have the highest proportion of world-leading research in terms of impact in the UK, and the action plan presents an opportunity to recognise and build-upon this internationally recognised work.

We are pleased to see the plan recognise the global reach of Welsh universities, promoting Wales as a destination for people and business. In 2015-16 there were 22,190 international students from 140 countries studying in Wales. International students and their visitors spent £487m in Wales in that year, providing valuable investment in retail and tourism and other important areas of the foundational economy. This impact has been shown to benefit all parts of Wales with over 22% of the jobs universities generate in areas of Wales that do not have a university presence.

The Welsh Government’s economic action plan sets out many of the challenges facing us in Wales as well as some important priorities for the coming years including the need for skills and training, investment in vital areas such as research and innovation, and the importance of international trade and exports. Welsh universities are ready to help drive these and other areas of the action plan, and to realise the Welsh Government’s ambition to provide future prosperity for all in Wales.

This is an online version of an essay which first appeared in the Western Mail’s education supplement on Thursday 14th December.