“Embedding the Universities” in the WMCA: will they speak truth to power?

The WMCA Board Meeting on 21 April approved a report titled “Embedding the Universities – Higher Education Representation” (pp21-28 of the agenda papers on the WMCA website).  We don’t know if the WMCA is aware of the resonances of the term “embedding” but we certainly are. “Embedding” is a term most associated with journalists being attached to military units involved in armed conflicts, leading to biased reporting which largely uncritically reflects the official viewpoint of the military. It raises the question of the implications of the integration of the universities in the West Midlands into the policy agenda of the WMCA.

The WMCA is being constructed as an exclusive coalition of politicians and business leaders and now the universities are being integrated as coalition partners, in two ways. They are taking up places as advisers on the key committees, and they are part-funding the WMCA Growth Company. Here are the relevant extracts from the report:

 2.1 The WMSEP explicitly recognises “the leading role universities play in economic development” and implicitly, quality of life. This report provides an offer of support from the universities. It also seeks to strengthen the focus on innovation.

3.5 On that basis the universities could be important strategic partners to the WMCA. The universities recognise as major anchor institutions and as service providers they share with local government the same aspirations for local places and the local communities that both institutions are here to serve.

4.1 As a first step the universities have agreed to invest in the WM Growth Company and help fund a Director post to support the WMCA.

4.2 As a next step to help lay the foundations for a strong relationship those same universities have agreed an offer of representation within the operating model of the WMCA. This is based on identification of advisers to sit on specific Boards and working groups.

There follows in the report a list of various WMCA bodies and the names of the university representatives on each. In total there are 27 representatives and alternates on 15 committees.

The report recognises the contribution that the local universities could make to the economic and social agenda of the WMCA. Conversely, universities have a strong material incentive to be involved in the WMCA because of the opportunities it may offer to secure research funding and other financial benefits at a time of reductions in government funding for higher education, compounded by the potential loss of students and research grants as a result of Brexit. There is a consensual  interest here, expressed in the report’s confident claim that the universities “share with local government the same aspirations for local places and the local communities that both institutions are here to serve”.

But is this the case? Birmingham Against the Cuts has criticised in numerous articles over the past year and more the problems with the agenda of the WMCA, in particular the WMCA’s bias in favour of business representation in its structures at the expense of representation by unions, community organisations and service users; the failure of the WMCA’s Strategic Economic Plan to address issues of social inequality; the commitment to reduce public spending by £3.9billion by 2030; and the evident incapacity of its Scrutiny arrangements to hold the WMCA to public account in the absence of an elected assembly.

The question is, can we be confident that the university representatives on the WMCA bodies will challenge these and other policies in the interest of social justice? Or will they feel under pressure not to rock the consensual boat and to confine any criticisms within the business-dominated technicist framework of WMCA policy-making?

And to what extent might academics who are not “embedded” representatives themselves be vulnerable to pressure, or feel that they are, not to publicly criticise the policies of the WMCA by ‘speaking truth to power’? It has to be said that up to now academics in the West Midlands have been notably silent about offering any public critical analysis of the WMCA (in contrast to commentaries on the Greater Manchester CA by academics in Manchester).

According to the report “the universities have agreed to invest in the WM Growth Company and help fund a Director post to support the WMCA.” What is this new body that the universities have volunteered to put money into? The WMCA Annual Plan 2017/18, just published, says this:

From May 2017 there will be a new growth company working as part of the Combined Authority who will work to promote the region around the world. This is an important development as the WMCA is keen to attract investment from overseas, as well as promoting the region’s business and tourism offering. Existing world-class facilities, such as the region’s universities, will be key focus of plans to secure foreign investment. The new company will also support the delivery of the strategic economic plan, which is central to the government’s wider ambition for the Midlands Engine strategy.  (p53)

We can see how the Growth Company can attract foreign investment, and how the universities might benefit in terms of international image and reputation, research initiatives, and admission of students and employment of staff from overseas. What is not clear, and is not explained, is why the universities have to invest money in the Growth Company in order to access these putative benefits. Why isn’t funding allocated to the Company by the WMCA itself out of its devolved funding allocation? Surely it is one of the purposes of devolution to the WMCA to fund initiatives such as this? How much are the universities paying? What other organisations are paying, and how much?  The Board Meeting paper gives no answers, just this: “Matters Not Open to the Public and Press 7.1 West Midlands Growth Company”. We say, why isn’t all this information public?

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