Anchor institutions and the social impact of economic growth

Blog by Josephine Barham

The renewed emphasis in national policy on the role of universities in economic growth as ‘anchor institutions’ raises important questions about the impact of growth on local communities, and in particular, the social impact of such activity on the communities in which universities are based.

By taking on the role of an ‘anchor institution’, universities can create impact which has social as well as economic benefits. Anchor institutions use their ‘place-based economic power’ along with human capital, to improve the local community in which they operate.
The Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) recently published a report looking at ‘good local economies and the role of anchor institutions’. The report examines the role and impact of economic growth, arguing that ‘good growth’ should support social wellbeing as well as economic self-interest; promoting social justice and public service reform. ‘Recognising the scale of anchor institutions’ was identified in the report as one of four components of a ‘good local economy’.

The role of universities as anchors in their local communities is now increasingly being seen as a policy driver in Higher Education (HE). A Catalyst fund call for innovative models of universities and colleges as anchor institutions was released by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) at the end of last year. HEFCE identify a number of levels at which an anchor institution could be involved in their local community through engagement with schools, the local skills agenda, social innovation and enterprise, and engaging with business.

CLES has developed a number of case studies which explore how anchor institutions in Preston, working in partnership, can develop a ‘good economy’ which brings ‘maximum benefit’ to the local community. There are examples in the USA (where the concept of anchor institutions is more firmly embedded in policy) in which partnerships between local anchor institutions and the local civic authorities have been long established. For example, John Hopkins University signed a pledge to work with a number of universities and hospitals to grow and revitalise the city of Baltimore, under the Baltimore City Anchor Plan. The plan is focusing partnership activity in four key areas, public safety, local hiring, local purchasing, and quality of life, and includes a framework for measuring the progress of activity.

In Leeds City Region, this concept is being explored in a study commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and delivered by Leeds Beckett University in partnership with York St John University. The action research project examines the ways in which anchor institutions can have a positive impact on the City Region’s economy through their recruitment, employment and procurement policies.

While there are many benefits to universities taking on such a role, it does raise questions as to the obligations of universities to their local communities, and the extent to which these priorities should take precedence over ‘core’ HE activities such as teaching and research. With the current uncertainty regarding the HE funding environment, and increased competition in the sector, it is likely that the extent to which institutions engage with this agenda will vary. 

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