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.