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Agencies hold regional key

WITH a hint of irony, perhaps, the Dearing committee report, in its chapter on the local and regional roles of higher education, concluded that, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, "in England, regional consciousness varies". The government's response expressed the hope that the new regional development agencies would "help to tie higher education firmly into the regional economic agenda and so enable it to make a greater strategic contribution".

"Tie" may not be the best word to describe the range of future relationships, but there is no doubt that for higher education, the agencies present a challenge to move beyond today's problems towards tomorrow's opportunities.

The agencies offer higher education the chance to work with regional communities in creating Dearing's "learning society" by (to quote the government's consultation paper, The Learning Age) sharing their expertise with industry and services in a pioneering way and becoming "beacons of learning" in their communities.

The agencies' brief is to focus on sustainable growth, competitiveness and employment in nine designated English regions and to develop coherent strategies to enlist the support of the whole community and to attract inward investment. They will be encouraged to measure themselves by the highest international standards, challenge accepted thinking and address social exclusion. They have been promised flexibility in deploying their integrated budgets.

That sounds to me like an agenda that higher education is powerfully equipped to take forward, not simply by being "tied into" regional strategies but by contributing radical thought and focused expertise. Those universities that have made a reality of the rhetoric of partnership, working with schools, further education, training and enterprise councils, local authorities and each other on local and regional agendas can apply the lessons of the past decade to the challenges of the next.

What, then, are the distinctive contributions to agencies that can be made by higher education?

* A commitment to quality and standards in delivering regional objectives effectively and accountably

* A capacity to transfer world-class ideas into practical and relevant business propositions

* Experience of inter-disciplinary team-working in areas such as the environment, work organisation, industrial relations and community arts

* Expertise in strategic planning designed to deliver national policies and priorities in a regional context, such as technology transfer and access courses designed to attract first-year undergraduates

* Resources - human, technological, physical - focused on current issues, such as European business opportunities, land decontamination and risk analysis

* Disinterested analysis of problems and propositions

* An awareness of the issues confronting growing small and medium-sized companies, providing advice on expansion, market analysis and diversification

* Collectively, on a regional basis, a diversity of learning approaches and resources that can make lifelong education and professional development a reality

* Critical comparisons and bench-marking that can shape the competitiveness agenda

* The ability to shape and adapt knowledge to particular purposes through dialogue and partnership.

A new breed of knowledge entrepreneur has emerged in many universities: academics committed to shaping and interpreting their disciplines in the interests of business solutions and innovations. The agencies will be the centre of regional networks and those universities with entrepreneurial skills will adapt quickly to regional development agency priorities and modes of operation.

The mainstream teaching and research of universities will also benefit from their involvement with the agencies. There will be common ground for cooperation across a range of activities and a wider sharing of scarce resources, not just among universities but with knowledge-based businesses. Higher education is being offered the opportunity to contribute its experience, weight, authority and distinctive skills to one of the key developments of the next decade.

There are, of course, sceptics who worry that the promised regional steer from the agencies to universities will threaten university independence. Others fear that regionalism might degenerate into parochialism. Some universities predict that the agencies will fund short-term initiatives and ignore strategic research. There are unanswered questions about the relations between universities, agencies and funding councils.

All of these concerns can be addressed through the boards and the chambers of the agencies.

There are powerful arguments to suggest that universities can indeed become "beacons of learning" within this regional context without endangering their perennial values. They take forward a key element of the Dearing agenda, the idea of a learning society.

The agencies can make that vision a reality. They will shape our regional futures: higher education must play a key role.

Ray Cowell is vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University.

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