The Connected University: Connecting Place, Research and Innovation to Drive Business Performance

Positioning a regional university to deliver economic and social impact in an under performing sub-region.

Emma Davies
Staffordshire University

Sarah Tudor
Staffordshire University

Background and Objectives
Describe the background and/or context for the next practice including the development of the institution(s)/organisation(s)/network(s) up until the point of the case. Please name the primary objectives of the program/initiative/strategy.

Staffordshire University is located between the Northern Powerhouse and the heart of the Midlands Engine within an underperforming sub-region in terms of levels of higher skills, innovation activity and R&D spend. This presents challenges for the university in working with regional businesses to link research and innovation and demonstrate regional impact. The university is uniquely placed to make a substantial contribution to the regional society and economy as an intellectual hub and an anchor institution and improve sub regional performance. However, the funding climate is increasingly competitive and more concentrated with significant uncertainty brought about by Brexit providing increased difficulties for areas like Staffordshire.

In response to this contextual challenge Staffordshire University’s Research, Innovation and Impact Services (RIIS) and Employer Partnerships (EP) departments have developed a strategy to address specific needs. The strategy, using Research England’s (RE) Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) links the two departments’ priorities to regional challenges to support leveraging of additional income and delivering impact to drive economic and social impact. The strategy has received commendation from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (now replaced by RE) for its approach to engaging with industry and supporting regional development.

The strategy, its operational plan and the departments it reaches operates as a catalyst to respond to local skills, innovation and R&D challenges. The programme’s objectives focus on five priority areas with an aim to connect ‘place’ with research, innovation and enterprise to deliver student opportunities and economic impact.
1. Growing the digital economy in the region: Following £12m investment, the University has developed a 'Digital Kiln' offering support for new and existing businesses to better exploit new digital technologies and services.
2. Energy generation and distribution: Academics from Staffordshire University are working alongside Stoke-on-Trent City Council to support the development of the UK's first city-scale Geothermal District Heat Network (DHN).
3. Ceramics and creative industries: The University is exploring opportunities to support the regeneration of the former Spode ceramics factory site which is already home to a number of graduate artist start-ups.
4. SME innovation and growth: The University will continue to support SMEs, particularly in the LEP's priority sectors, through a range of mechanisms including student and graduate internships, collaborative and contract research and consultancy, access to innovation funding and the provision of business space.
5. Regional workforce development: Staffordshire University is at the forefront of national apprenticeship development and is among the first UK institutions to offer legal and health apprenticeships.

The university’s Connected University strategic plan has provided a framework for driving the HEIF strategy and delivering economic and social impact, also supported by key objectives in the Research, Innovation and Impact Strategy:
• We will collaborate with the regional community including the Local Enterprise Partnership, local authorities and businesses as their “research partner” of choice for their priorities.
• We will engage with our alumni to explore collaborative innovation opportunities and share our expertise.
• We will support staff to attend innovation forums for key stakeholders in government, industry and the third sector.
• Staff will utilise opportunities for knowledge transfer partnerships as mechanisms to inform future research and/or as impact for current research.
Within the context of the UK’s Industrial Strategy, universities are increasingly expected to operate as a major stakeholder in the place and through the Local Enterprise Partnership to deliver of regional priorities. This structure and framework provide an opportunity to drive good practice, leverage income and deliver value within the region, namely the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (SSLEP) area.