Do universities sustain cities?

A few years ago, during my term of office as President of Dublin City University, the Dublin Chamber of Commerce and Dublin City Council decided to embark on an initiative to secure more industry-related investment in the Dublin area. At that time government agencies were increasingly focusing on investment in other parts of the country, and the ‘anywhere-but-Dublin’ approach was creating real issues for the city. The Chamber and the Council set up a working group, and very quickly the key members of the group turned out to be the universities. These days, cities need universities, and need them to be strong, because without them companies in a knowledge-intensive business will not invest there.

In fact, the value of universities to a city is not always fully understood. They supply the skilled graduates needed by industry; they maintain teams of researchers working on the key problems in today’s society; they generate employment on a large scale – universities are typically the largest local employers, or nearly so; and their students and staff are vital customers giving business to local enterprises. In cities where there are two or more universities – and London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Dublin, Aberdeen are just some examples – they will be of vital importance, and any troubles they experience will have an immediate and potentially catastrophic effect on the local economy.

Against this backdrop there are now serious concerns in some places that funding cuts suffered by universities may inflict major damage on some cities more generally. The think tank Centre for Cities has  warned that some cities, in which there are universities that may find it hard to recruit sufficient student numbers over the years ahead, may face serious economic and budget difficulties. In England some universities may not be able to fill places at the high fee levels they have now set, and in other countries public funding cuts may make universities less vibrant participants in the local economy.

What this means is that those taking funding policy decisions need to bear in mind that universities don’t just educate students, they also sustain the places where they are located. As the fear grows that some universities may not be able to survive, so there must also be increasing apprehension about what that will mean for their cities. This latter issue may need some much more direct attention.

Explore posts in the same categories: economy, university


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19 Comments on “Do universities sustain cities?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The one problem is that in general spending derived from the uni’s goes directly into non-productive investments in the main like student housing and shop rents. In this the relationship is not so much symbiotic as parasitic

  2. Al Says:

    I am the last person that should be pointing this out:
    Last line:
    “This latter issue may need some much more direct attention.”

  3. Al Says:

    The economic argument is the last line of defense.
    It can be made for red light districts, etc.

    • jfryar Says:

      Al, I don’t think it’s the last line of defence, merely another argument in the long list of arguments. Nothing wrong with being reductionist, breaking issues into different components, and analysising those in isolation.

      When people talk about ‘cuts’ in relation to universities there is a section of society who think ‘well-paid lazy academics in their ivory towers getting a salary decrease’ or ‘aw, no swimming pool for the middle-class darlings’. It’s rarely seen as hundreds of local jobs in catering, cleaning, maintenance, security, etc and all the additional companies for whom universities are big customers (A4 pad suppliers, for example!). Plus, I’ve never been to a university town where pubs weren’t every 50 yards.

      • Vincent Says:

        The problem is all those businesses are leveraged up to the Green River. There was a belief that Uni’s could only grow in population.

        • jfryar Says:

          True, but student numbers will probably continue to rise for the foreseeable future. And they need to eat, drink, and live somewhere!

          • Al Says:

            The property bubble also took in the third level world with student villages etc.
            Now, someone who bought an apartment to let that expected to get a continuous yield from it would have presumed free third level for that time???

    • Anna Notaro Says: could argue that the economic argument is increasingly the last line of defense it can be made for the existence of universities themselves these days. Interesting parallelism: university campuses and red light districts Lol

  4. Perry Share Says:

    If the above argument is true for universities, it is even more so for institutes of technology in Ireland – something that the powers that be may wish to keep in mind before they indulge in a round of merger mania.

    • Al Says:

      Where are you with medical centers of excellence?
      If the logic applies to hospitals, then should it also apply to Institutes?
      Ferdinand’s IT article last week called for localised specialisations/ or an end to everything on offer everywhere.

      • Perry Share Says:

        I don’t have a problem with rationalisation and specialisation per se, as long as the process is rational!

        It might make sense to locate some specific programmes only in places where specialised facilities are available (generally those that require hi-tech equipment). But communications technologies (such as Skype) have rendered location less important for many forms of academic work, especially research, bu also some aspects of teaching and lots of admin.

        The problem with the implementation ‘rationalisation’/merger agenda is that much of it is not being conducted in public.

  5. Simon Dobson Says:

    St Andrews actually commissioned a report to calculate the impact it had on the town and region:

    In addition to the academic and intellectual arguments, I think having at least a view — however poor — of the economic arguments can’t hurt.

  6. cormac Says:

    I agree with FvP and JF – in a small city with not much employment, a uni (or equiv) plays a very large role as employer. In Waterford, WIT and the hospital are the main 2 employers – if WIT were to shrink it would have a devastating effect on the city

    • Al Says:

      Economic arguments like that don’t make easy bedfellows with arguments about world class, cutting edge, punching above ones weight, etc.
      Presenting an argument about the economic importance of an institution to its surrounding hinterland presumably does not good for the argument for the importance of the institution to the academic community?

  7. In my own opinion, the decision of the UK Government to cut funding to universities still needs to be revisited. The social benefits that people will derive from sustaining or increasing the current level of funding will outweigh the economic benefits that the Government intends to achieve with its decision to slash funding to universities.

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