Sir Alan Langlands: Universities and their priceless economic legacy

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THERE’S a famous scene in Monty Python’s Biblical satire Life Of Brian where a would-be revolutionary played by John Cleese asks “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

Instead of greeting him with a refrain of “absolutely nothing”, his assembled acolytes start reeling off a list of ever more impressive achievements. Sometimes the same question is asked of the University of Leeds.

Now we are in a position to provide a very clear answer. Not in a spirit of “stand back and wonder”. Rather, to communicate a simple message to the city and the wider region – universities bring an enormous range of benefits, but these can be even greater if we seize more opportunities and if we can build stronger partnerships.

Yesterday, we held a debate with economic leaders from the region to discuss how we can work with them to build on the University’s £1.3bn annual contribution to the UK economy.

It feels like a good time to be doing this, thanks in part to the Government’s Northern Powerhouse initiative, which aims to fuse the economic weight of the North’s great cities, including Leeds, to act as a counter-balance to London.

I believe it is essential that we take this opportunity to assert the strengths and skills of the region rather than see ourselves as victims of a London-centric culture. That would be a fast-track to economic inertia. The Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership provides a perfect complement to this initiative, with its ambition to unlock the Leeds City Region’s potential to become the engine room for the North.

And the recent announcement by Burberry that it is investing £50m in a new factory in the city underlines that there is much to play for here – Leeds is a place where people want to do business.

The University certainly wants to do and generate business. Indeed, we already do – new research for the University shows that every £1m of revenue generated by us creates a further economic impact of £1.31m, equating to some £570m for Yorkshire and Humber industries. We are the city’s third largest employer, providing the equivalent of nearly 6,600 full-time jobs.

But it is not just about numbers. The University is so much more than that. Our wide range of world-leading research focuses on real world challenges such as health, water, food, energy, culture, cities and high value engineering.

To do great research, we need great people. That’s why we are investing in the research talent of the future with our 250 Great Minds initiative, through which we will appoint 250 early-career University Academic Fellows.

The University also wants to play its role and be at the heart of the city’s bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2023. I hope the bid will be boosted by our new cultural institute, aimed at supporting the cultural and creative industries, and providing a shop window for the wide array of cultural activity going on across the University and in partnership with the city.

As part of an overall £520m investment in our campus, we are channelling £125m into engineering and physical sciences; we are launching a new climate institute and we have just made a £17m investment in our internationally-renowned Astbury Centre, which enables us to study life in molecular detail.

We are also creating a innovation and enterprise centre to enable students, graduates and staff to work with businesses in the city and surrounding area to bring initiatives from the page to the shop floor.

Investment on this scale will build our international reputation. Again, the city stands to benefit here – we already have 235,000 ambassadors for Leeds in the form of our worldwide alumni, alongside 900 international academic leaders and staff.

And we want to form partnerships beyond our shores, such as the joint engineering school with Southwest Jiatong University in China that we launched last month – the first such initiative for the University, which received a personal endorsement from the Prime Minister.

Our ambitious plans for the future aim to ensure the University becomes even more integral to our city’s life and well-being. That way, we can all combine our knowledge and expertise, create new opportunities, and find ways to better collaborate to make Leeds and the surrounding area a more prosperous place.

Sir Alan Langlands is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds.