Educating the regions
One of the puzzles of higher education as it is currently developing is how we are supposed to address regional issues. On the one hand, if you mention ‘regional universities’ most people assume you are talking about teaching intensive universities with only minor research ambitions and a vocational orientation. On the other hand, regions provide the basis for R&D-focused university and industry clusters, as in the North Carolina Research Triangle. On top of that, many governments now want universities to address regional issues, including both economic development needs and the up-skilling of members of the workforce.
So what is it to be? Are regional universities to be the lower value cohort of higher education institutions, or are they the smart winners in the new knowledge agenda? And should high ranking global universities see themselves as international institutions with few regional interests, or do they gain some of their strength from local associations? All of these options are at one point or another public policy targets in most developed countries, but such policies can appear to be somewhat confused.
My own university clearly has a regional focus: we aim to provide the best educational experience to benefit local society and the local economy in the North-East of Scotland. We have strong links with local further education colleges and provide access routes for their students to proceed to a university degree. We also see the university as a key participant in and driver of economic development in the region, as well as a major and high value employer. But then again, we are also part of a global educational and scholarly agenda, and we are developing specific areas of research in which we intend to achieve international recognition.
In fact, as regions become increasingly important in both economic and social policy, all universities will need to develop and maintain a strong relationship with the locality where they are based. In fact, as the OECD has observed, human capital and innovation systems now grow mainly in regional settings. In that sense, therefore, the suggestion that we should view ‘regional universities’ as lesser value institutions is seriously misguided. Regions represent the higher education future.
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