Lessons for the Future?

2020 has proved to be a year of economic and social challenges. Much has been said about the impact of Covid-19 on exam results and on the employment prospects of young people headed for the workplace, but coronavirus will have far greater repercussions. We talk to representatives of the city’s universities about the role of higher education in the economic regeneration and recovery of Liverpool City Region.

Higher education has played an increasingly dynamic part in the social and economic renewal of the city of Liverpool and its surrounding region in recent years, and this role will be still more significant in the wake of the pandemic. Contributions from universities located in Liverpool represent a wide variety of activities, with benefits including the creation of local jobs, the development of higher level skills, the support of business start-ups and public-private partnerships, significant investment in infrastructure, global connection and leadership and delivery capacity. Our programmes of civic engagement have been built on collaboration with organisations including LEPS, chambers of commerce, MPs, NHS Trusts, cultural institutions, local councils and the Combined Authority. These partnerships will form the basis of the work we will undertake to support a region that is looking for new ways of doing good business.


The success of the four universities within the city of Liverpool – the University of Liverpool, Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), Liverpool Hope University, and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine – has attracted growing numbers of students to study and live in the area, and their presence is a significant factor in the development of local economic activity. We estimate that our students contribute £342m to the regional economy, which – in turn – has supported more than 3,000 jobs. Academic staff, and those working in professional service roles in the sector, find the region an attractive place to live and work, and their contribution to its economic, social and cultural life is substantial. Our staff increasingly recognise the need to work with local employers to retain skilled graduates in Liverpool City Region, and to attract new graduates.


The sector’s production of ground-breaking research, from developing new materials with large-scale applications in both industry and consumer products, to enhancing the personalisation of health management and progressing the battle against infectious diseases or identifying sustainable energy sources, will help to drive innovation in the region. Universities are places where ideas are born, and we are increasingly ambitious to see those ideas translated into action. Working with the communities and businesses of the region will help us to do that.


Equally important, though not easy to measure, is the contribution that universities can make to the cultural life of the city and region. One of the most profound consequences of Covid-19 will be its impact on our shared cultural lives as we come to terms with the damage inflicted by our necessary measures to contain the infection, and reflect on inventive models for performance and exhibition that may yet emerge. The government’s Culture Recovery Fund has been established to rescue arts and cultural organisations (including theatres, galleries, museums, and grassroots music venues) from the threat of closure, but analysis at the end of August 2020 reveals that cultural institutions in London have received more than £35 million, working out at £3.90 per head of population, while the North’s share amounts to £1.60 per head of population.

Universities are places where ideas are born, and we are increasingly ambitious to see those ideas translated into action.

How can universities help to redress this imbalance? We have needed to move much of our teaching and research online, often with challenging rapidity. We can share the lessons we have learned with other creative institutions, who have insights of their own to pass on. The pandemic has imposed heavy burdens on the developing economy of the region. If anything positive is to be gained from its calamities, it will be found in our determination to work together, exploring fresh paths to a better future.


But, we need to try and estimate what that future may hold in the next phase of the pandemic, as universities and the wider city look to welcome back tens of thousands of students this September. Of course, attempting to assess economic futures is a mug’s game at the best of times. The eminent 20th century Canadian economist J K Galbraith commented that “the only real point of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable”. Even so, the connection between the student population and the city’s hospitality sector provides some clues.


What are the likely short-term effects? After the shambolic crisis of the A-level algorithm and the government’s u-turn, back to teacher-assessed grades, the expectation is that each of our universities will retain robust levels of new admissions. Looking at the latest applicant acceptances, student recruitment continues to look encouraging. There were sector-wide concerns that a near catastrophic drop in student numbers could have taken place. This seems not to have materialised.


That doesn’t mean that the new student cohort will be recognisably the same as in previous years. The downturn in numbers of new international students, estimated at c80% of 2019 recruitment, will have an immediate impact on the city, if not on the universities themselves. The government has pledged grants and low-interest loans to cover up to 80% of the lost revenue to universities, consequent on the dip in international student numbers. Yet, there are concerning signs that those overseas students who are already here – who began their studies in the past couple of years – are facing increasing hardship. The severe hit that the hospitality sector has taken means that their main sources of part-time work, in bars, restaurants, cafes and hotels has all-but dried-up. And if that is the supply side impact, the effect on demand has been no less calamitous.


UK Hospitality CEO Kate Nicholls estimates that one-third of all UK hospitality venues will close as a result of the pandemic. Liverpool has a higher concentration of clubs, bars, hotels and restaurants than most UK cities, because of our vibrant tourist industry. But, the pandemic has ravaged the sector, as the city centre has become a shadow of its former self, especially in relation to the night-time economy. That said, not everything is doom and gloom. The recent announcement of the city’s new pilot package of support for the sector has been a very welcome boost.


Equally, the cultural industries, which, again, students are so much a part of, has shown immense resilience, in the face of limited openings and seating prior to the spring of next year. Outdoor shows, like Bev’s Buskers Bonanza (Aug 29, Williamson Square) and the Liverpool Theatre Festival (Sept 11-19, outdoors at St Luke’s), created and organised by the redoubtable Bill Elms, have demonstrated the power of culture to retain the city’s spirit and enterprise, as it plans for the future.

The downturn in numbers of new international students, estimated at c80% of 2019 recruitment, will have an immediate impact on the city.

There is no doubt that the shape of the student experience, as well as their engagement with the city centre and its leisure and cultural economy, will be like no other year. Equally, the universities will continue to play a vital part in nurturing the city through the pandemic and providing a significant stimulus to the income of the city, whilst seeking to keep students, staff and the wider public safe, educated and entertained.


Finally, a vital way universities contribute to the economic and social wellbeing of society is through their knowledge transfer activities. The city’s universities make a significant contribution to the development of many of the region’s strategic sectors including health, low carbon and sustainability, advanced manufacturing and skills.


Within LJMU, the Liverpool Business School focuses on its business support role and in the current crisis the School seeks to help businesses survive and grow in a hostile business environment.


Business support is provided in two areas. First, helping managers run their organisations more effectively by sharing current thinking on business processes and procedures. Secondly, working with organisational leaders and seeks to demonstrate how individuals and groups at all levels of an organisation can act and inspire others to act to enable the organisation to achieve its long-term purpose. This is about sustainability, change management and personal effectiveness.


Effective management and leadership will be a critical factor in ensuring companies survive over the next few years. Liverpool Business School targets business support activities in three area: business start-ups; organisational scale up; and business adaptation. Start up supports those wishing to run their own businesses; scale up is about the growth of existing businesses; and adaptation is about the agility to change business models.


Business support is delivered through a number of activities, and three examples of its work are described here. Firstly, educational programmes for managers and leaders. The Masters in Business Administration (MBA), for example, seeks to help leaders and managers develop their skills and effectiveness. The programme is relevant to the profit and non-profit sectors. A recent graduate, Paul Growney, is the CEO of Caring Connections, a charity providing home care provision to vulnerable adults that has delivered £7m of social value to the Liverpool City Region in the past three years. Paul recently graduated from the MBA and his senior team members are currently on the programme. He has noted particularly how the programme has helped the team’s decision making in the context of the challenges faced during the pandemic.


Additionally, the universities seek different sources of external funding to support scale-up and adaptation. Liverpool Business School is currently working with Widnes-based Used Kitchen Exchange, for example, whose business purpose is to drive down kitchen prices and reduce the waste associated with kitchen replacement. A government grant provided by Innovate UK on behalf of the Department for Business, Environment and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), will, with out support, help the company grow, the aim being to create 180 new jobs in the next five years.


Finally, we draw on the talent and enthusiasm of our students by running a student-led business clinic for profit and non-profit organisations. The purpose of the clinic is to give organisations access to business support they could not otherwise afford. Support is particularly focused on charities and social enterprises. Not only does this help the organisations but students can engage with communities and organisations they might otherwise not come into contact with. Through this they can come to appreciate how responsible leadership and management may be a force for good.


Liverpool’s universities have become firmly woven into the fabric of city life, both shaping and supporting culture and business here. They will continue to play a key role in the City Region’s regeneration and recovery as it emerges from the challenges posed by the pandemic.


Professor Dinah Birch is Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Cultural Engagement at the University of Liverpool; Revd Dr Tony Bradley is a Lecturer in Business Sustainability, Social Enterprise and Innovation at Liverpool Hope University and Timothy Nichol is Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Faculty of Business and Law) at Liverpool John Moores University.


The images accompanying this piece were tagged #backtouni on Instagram in the first week of September 2020. They are from @zatisyazwina, @ctrajectoriesfitnhealthy and @janeormes

The city’s universities make a significant contribution to the development of many of the region’s strategic sectors including health, low carbon and sustainability, advanced manufacturing and skills.


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