Universities can spearhead economic change

Chris O’Malley says that disadvantaged communities must find the source of regeneration within themselves

In both Cardiff Bay and Canary Wharf in London, we have seen successful examples of regeneration within a specific framework – namely the re-invention of the role of former hubs of trade and commerce in a different form. The locations have been revived, although the communities who once lived and worked there are not necessarily actively involved in their new economic roles.
However, we need to be very aware that it is far more difficult to regenerate communities as a whole as opposed to just physical spaces such as Cardiff Bay or Canary Wharf, where regeneration has effectively resulted in the original communities being largely replaced.
In some cases, new housing developments and apartment buildings look bright and exciting when first built. A couple of decades later we can find that the people living in them are no better off, and the result of this can be physical decay and social alienation. Alternatively, as a result of successful physical regeneration, property prices soar and the original community is displaced by more affluent owners.
Industrial regeneration is not always easy either. For example, two years ago a major flagship production plant of LG Electronics in Newport was closed down in response to trends in markets and global production costs. This can be the outcome of a generic approach to securing industrial investment based largely on cost incentives, which can have short-lived results.
A common theme thus runs across both economic and social regeneration. You must start with the strengths and potential strengths of the people and places you are working with. There is an established approach of basing your business strategy on your core competencies – distinctive assets, including skills, reputation and relationships – and this can apply equally to strategy for development of a region.
Equally, in the field of local development we have seen the emergence of an approach called ‘asset-based community development’. This is based on starting with a community’s strengths and potential strengths. It may all seem rather obvious, but consider how it compares the official approach actually being followed.
In 2002, following the closure of more steelworks in Gwent, we saw the publication of a report called the Five Counties Regeneration Framework. When you read the report you see page after page of weaknesses documented, all leading to the conclusion: ‘so give us money’. Nowhere in the report will you find strengths or potential strengths that are distinctive to the region, that could give it an edge in the future, being identified.
Regeneration cannot be made permanent in its effects without having such a connection to the distinctive personality and strengths of the communities concerned, and indeed without involving their active participation and leadership. We can only build communities and regions by starting from the inside – or rather, by facilitating them in building themselves
A  university connects with regeneration on three major fronts:

•    It can raise the skills levels in the local workforce, which in turn attracts investment and promotes the growth and development of local activity.

•    It can provide expertise in supporting specific projects or organisations through consultancy and research, or indeed through spin-off companies from staff and students. For example, in the last two years, seventy new companies have been started in our region by University of Wales Newport students as they left our programmes.

•    It can play an active role in directly promoting new developments, such as approaching potential investors and building international links in other markets.
At Newport we don’t see ourselves as a typical traditional university. The majority of our students are part-time. Three quarters are older than 21, and indeed nearly half are over the age of 30. This means that most are already in the workforce here in Newport and wider south east Wales. We also have more than 1,000 other students pursuing our programmes on a franchise basis with eleven FE Colleges across Wales.
This means that we are particularly committed as a university to raising the skills of our current workforce and to bringing higher education to people who traditionally may never have darkened the door of a university. Let’s remember that 80 per cent of the people who will be in the workforce in ten years time are already in the workforce now. It makes no sense to deal only with school leavers if we want our city and our region to regenerate itself successfully.
Regeneration must address multiple dimensions of development in order to be successful. It requires us to work on three dimensions: not just the physical re-building and development, but also the economic strategy to sustain it and the social development to ensure that it takes root and benefits everyone. And this means that we have to make sure that all of the pieces fit.
University of Wales, Newport has established a wide range of programmes that have had direct effect on our community:
•    The RISE network is a partnership with over 40 organisations to promote lifelong learning. Among its achievements, it has upgraded facilities in over 200 centres across five counties and promoted the voice of the learner through training learner advocates and involving them in educational planning.
•    The Equinex programme has developed new ways of tackling barriers to work and education for people with disabilities.

•    The insights and experience from both Equinex and RISE has led to the QWEST programme. This is designed to provide a seamless support to people facing multiple disadvantages from a partnership of organisations providing specialist expertise in various forms of disadvantage, training providers and work placement agencies.
Our Dyscovery Centre has achieved worldwide prominence for expertise in special educational needs, taking a unique cross-disciplinary approach to tackling issues such as dyspraxia, dyslexia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and the autism spectrum.

•    Our Community University of the Valleys has encouraged hundreds of people to gain a university-level education in the Valleys who otherwise might never have even considered it. Its success has provided a forerunner for a major new initiative in the Valleys, which I will come back to.

•    The Bettering Women’s Education, Health and Lifestyle (BeWEHL) programme has developed a new model of community engagement in higher education which works with individuals from a number of marginalised, excluded and low achieving groups to gain access to and experience higher education leading to further progression in higher education.
•    The Wales Institute of Community Currencies, originally established in the University, has become a world leader in pioneering new ways to value people’s voluntary input and build social capital in communities. The team have since set up as an independent consultancy as the Spice Institute.
All these programmes have been run through networks of partnerships with other organisations. We have found this to be the most powerful way of getting results and achieving a wider impact. Of course the downside is that because they are partnerships, each with their own brand, not many people may realise the extent of the university’s role in such activities.
Nonetheless, through these and other programmes we have amassed a formidable range of experience and expertise in developing communities, and we believe the time is right to raise our role to a higher level in this area. We are doing this firstly through the University of the Heads of the Valley initiative in partnership with the University of Glamorgan. As well as bringing higher education to much larger numbers of people in the region, this will be a transformative vehicle for the region as a whole.

We are also playing a leading role in the regeneration of Newport itself, including the development of our new City Campus, the drive to create a Cultural Quarter in the City, and through helping to attract new investment and support new enterprise.

Chris O’Malley is Pro Vice Chancellor of the University of Wales, Newport and Chair of the IWA’s Gwent Branch.

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