Map of the south west peninsula with pin pointing on Plymouth
Challenges around university funding and the growing need for business and higher education to work together were at the heart of a speech to leaders of both sectors by the University of Plymouth’s Vice-Chancellor, last week.
At the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) chair’s reception in London, Professor Dame Judith Petts DBE reflected on the changes of the last decade – particularly in terms of technology, knowledge exchange and funding.
And she looked to the future, including a plea for the Government’s levelling-up agenda to include greater support for the South West.
Having led the University of Plymouth since 2016 and been Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Southampton before that, Professor Petts said:

These are different universities, in terms of scale of operation, volume of research income and research intensity. But my experience of the opportunities and the working relationships with business are very similar as well as the type of support and facilities that universities need to invest in to maintain and develop these relationships. In other words, scale does not change what needs to be done.

Judith Petts DBEJudith Petts DBE

Appropriately for Britain’s Ocean City, a sizeable proportion of the University of Plymouth’s relationships with business centre on its marine and maritime offer, which – thanks to significant investment over the last decade – provides both critical mass and excellence. Together with partner institutions in the city, around 3,000 researchers and students are focused on that sector.
And that presence is likely to grow as Plymouth builds on its expertise as a hub for the developments and innovations in offshore renewable energy, marine autonomy and cyber-security that will all be required to maximise opportunities in the Celtic Sea.
While the University of Plymouth is in a strong position to leverage investment, Professor Petts highlighted the national conversation around the long-term financial sustainability of the higher education sector as a whole when the overall deficit in 2021/22 was £2 billion.
The loss of European funding loomed large; the University of Plymouth benefitted from £25 million of regional funding in just 5 years to 2022 enabling multiple research and technical posts and the purchase of high value equipment. Professor Petts said there was now very limited access to funding that can support such regional interventions that make a massive difference.
Concluding that it should not only be the north of England that sees Government levelling-up investment given the concentration of high potential engineering and manufacturing industries in the South West, Professor Petts stressed five points:
  • Universities – not least the University of Plymouth – play a critical role in the supply and value chains of our business partners. 
  • Local, regional, and international partnerships and collaborations are essential.
  • Education and research are not mutually exclusive. Successful relationships between universities and businesses are dependent on collaboration across both skills and innovation.
  • As the NCUB State of the Relationship report in 2020 concluded geographical proximity is important for the levelling up agenda but so are other forms of proximity – organisational, social and institutional. The building of long-term meaningful relationships that support trust and confidence between Government, industry and universities cannot be taken for granted. 
  • Public and private funding to support research innovation and importantly the clustering of activity in investment zones is vital to ensure delivery of levelling-up objectives and the key Government economic and net zero priorities.

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