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Universities have key role to play in recovery

By Stuart Patrick, Chief Executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce

An Easter weekend spent in the sunshine and the reopening of garden centres, hairdressers and homeware shops maybe finally justifies some optimism for the months ahead.

The Office of National Statistics reported last week a near record household savings ratio in the last quarter of 2020. At 16.1 per cent the average share of disposable income saved has only once been higher since records began back in 1963.

All that extra available cash should bode well for firms in aviation, tourism and hospitality if they make it through to the end of the crisis and when they are finally allowed to get back to undisturbed business.

Also published in March, by the City Council’s Invest Glasgow team, was a new e-book The Glasgow Narrative – Our Business Story setting out the distinguishing features of the city’s economic transformation over the past three decades.  Evidence of the city’s comparative performance is collected under 10 core arguments explaining why Glasgow is a good choice for building a business.   

There are some familiar messages explaining how the city economy has grown and diversified including the expansion of the financial district in which Barclays, JP Morgan, Virgin Money and others have continued to invest throughout the crisis.

The story of Glasgow’s growth as a destination for major events is also there, culminating in the city’s designation as the world’s leading festival and event destination at the 2019 World Travel Awards - and with COP26 on the horizon.

But also woven through the case is the importance of the city’s colleges and universities, reinforcing the significant direct economic impact of these institutions. 

The University of Glasgow’s 2015 report showed it supports around 9,000 jobs in the city and generates £500m in gross value added. Glasgow Caledonian University’s independent assessment in 2014 attributed over 5,000 jobs and £243m of gross value added.  City of Glasgow College intriguingly issued a Fraser of Allander report late last year which considered what the boost to the Scottish economy would have been over the past eight years from the skills the college nurtured amongst its graduates. The total was an incredible £6bn. 

There is no doubt the universities and colleges provide the pipeline of skills and talent that shapes the city’s economy, and Glasgow has been successful in attracting inward investment mainly because a very high share of the city’s workforce has graduate level skills. On this measure Glasgow is in the top 15% of European regions, impossible without effective colleges and universities. 

The city also has an unusually high number of international students, contributing to the UK’s second largest student population of over 185,000 from 140 countries.  Is it any wonder there has been an upsurge in student housing in recent years?  The student community will help our city centre recover from the battering it has taken during the pandemic.

Just as important however is the contribution our universities are making to scientific and industrial research in sectors as diverse as precision medicine, quantum engineering, energy and advanced manufacturing.

The development of an innovation district around the University of Strathclyde’s city centre campus is not only helping Glasgow build clusters in technology-based industries like space communications and photonics and exploring how net zero targets can be met but is also influencing the future role of our city centre. 

The city’s three university-led innovation districts will be as important in creating the next wave of economic success in Glasgow as the financial services district has been over the past 20 years.

As we rebuild our economy in the months ahead let us never take for granted our magnificent colleges and universities.

This article was first published in The Herald on Wednesday 7 April 2021

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