Universities are working hard to boost Lancashire’s vital SME sector and have forged close links with some of its biggest businesses, including blue chip companies such as BAE Systems.
And they have also built strong relationships with local county authorities and the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (LEP). Partnership is the name of the game.
The figures show that on top of all that, they are large-scale businesses, playing a major role in Lancashire’s economic well-being.
Take UCLan. It has nearly 36,000 students and is one of the region’s largest employers with over 3,000 staff and an annual income of over £250m.
It has been estimated that each year the university, with its main campus in Preston, contributes over £200 million to the local economy.
In 2020-21, Lancaster University received £325.6 million, most of which was raised through tuition fees, research grants and funding.
This income has been used to support the learning and academic experience of over 16,000 students while enabling the university to undertake cutting-edge research.
In West Lancashire, the total annual economic impact of Edge Hill is estimated at £261.3m, with students injecting £84.5m into the local economy and a supply chain spending over £76million.
The overall impact of the university on employment is estimated at the equivalent of 3,238 full-time jobs. These are impressive numbers.
Professor Graham Baldwin, Vice-Chancellor of UCLan and Director of the LEP Board of Trustees, says: “We are large companies in our own right, making a significant contribution to the local and regional economy.
“Much of the innovation work that takes place in the county is led by universities. If we weren’t there, there would be a huge hole in the community and the economy.
He adds: “This university is an anchor institution and we employ a lot of people. On top of that, we bring a lot of money to the community thanks to our students.
He also talks about the impact UCLan has had on the development of Preston as a city, its investments and ambitions for its Burnley campus and the positive role this plays in the fortunes of the city.
UCLan plans to increase the number of students in Burnley to 4,000, transforming it into a university town. This work, Prof Baldwin says, is already benefiting its economy in terms of foreign investment as companies arrive to support the student population.
Looking at the wider situation for Lancashire, Professor Baldwin highlights the collaborative work between the four institutions. He says: “All the vice-chancellors meet regularly. We all recognize that the stronger the county, the better for all of us.
“Where there are mutual benefits, there is an incentive to work together and build a collaborative front.”
Dr John Cater, Vice-Chancellor of Edge Hill, is the longest-serving head of a UK higher education institution. He started in this role in 1993. He points out that his university is the biggest business in West Lancashire.
And he adds that it also provides “high value-added jobs” for the region. The average university salary is over £40,000 per full-time employee. The West Lancashire average is £29,454.
Investment in the campus, which he describes as a “great community asset”, will continue, with around £80m of development work planned over the next three to four years. And a planning application has been submitted for a new £16million life sciences building.
Mark Rushforth, associate director of enterprise and innovation at Lancaster University, says the importance of its programs with SMEs cannot be underestimated, helping to pump money into the economy regional.
He says: “From an SME perspective, we are a huge asset. We work a lot with businesses in Lancashire and the North West in terms of collaboration based on innovation. We work with them to understand their needs and challenges.
“And we work with external partners who provide pathways for our research to have impact and deliver societal and economic benefits.”
To underscore this, Lancaster has just launched a new program to equip SMB leaders to protect their businesses against cyberattacks and avoid the potentially devastating consequences of a data breach.
The University of Cumbria is also making its mark economically in the towns where it is based, including Lancaster.
He continues to work to strengthen his ties with businesses in his home county and the Morecambe Bay region, including BAE Systems and Sellafield.
And Cumbria is collaborating with Lancaster in the development of an HE campus in Barrow.
Vice-Chancellor Professor Julie Mennell says her partnerships meet the need for higher-level skills in the North West. This includes a focus on industries of the future.
She says, “We are now talking about project management, advanced manufacturing, supply chain logistics and design engineering. We work closely with sectors and employers to meet their demands.
“There is a need for more people in the North West to be educated to higher education levels and we need to upskill the existing workforce.”