Are the UK’s new Investment Zones an opportunity for business schools?


Like many other sectors of the economy, our universities are operating in a challenging landscape, yet continue to provide research and education at a scale and quality comparable with the best in the world. The long-standing dispute over pensions, pay and casualisation in the sector show no signs of resolving, whilst inflation remains stubbornly high and continues to erode income from core undergraduate provision where fee levels were last adjusted in 2017.

Business schools

Almost every UK university has a business school, and business returned more staff than any other discipline except engineering to the last Research Excellence Framework exercise with impact cases covering policy, public organisations, SMEs, family business, social enterprises and corporate organisations in the UK and beyond.

Despite these successes, the longer-term picture for business schools is one of diminishing research funding in real terms where other disciplines are experiencing growth. Worse still, business schools secure more income from the EU than from UK central Government, and the long interregnum over arrangements to access EU research funds has negatively impacted that funding stream.

In a landscape where the government is committed to increasing the share of GDP spent on research and development, research funding should be a success story. The reality for business and management researchers places us at a systemic disadvantage.


The case for research funding

Research funding matters for many reasons. First, it supports research, even though funding from the research councils and many charitable foundations doesn't meet the full economic cost of that research.

Second, research funding offers a proxy for quality, where it is secured competitively from funders who received multiple bids for limited resources.

Third, it matters for the standing of each discipline relative to others. For example, institutional conversations about resourcing, staffing and investment often centre on a narrative of building on established centres of excellence. The relative absence of funding in some disciplines can lead to a vicious circle from which it is difficult to escape.

Fourth, research funding matters at the level of individual careers, where progression and promotion often rest on the ability to bring in external funds.


Investment Zones to the rescue? Maybe….

With all of this in mind, the Spring Budget announcement of 12 new Investment Zones (IZs) across England may represent some good news. These Zones are intended to drive business growth and deliver the Levelling Up agenda by both improving the performance of existing businesses and bringing further investment in key geographic areas.  Zones for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are also being identified.

The opportunity to access interventions worth £80m over five years, including tax reliefs, tax benefits and grant funding should offer fertile ground for business schools given that part of the selection criteria was that each zone had a “Knowledge Anchor”.

There is a clear expectation that successful Investment Zones will connect with local innovation systems foregrounding research intensive universities and the specifics of existing research strengths at a regional level. Whilst those research strengths may subsist in a range of STEM disciplines, the capacity to leverage business school expertise to commercialise, to innovate and to bring products, services and business models to market is key.

Retraining and upskilling the workforce is another area where business schools have a vital role to play and where the worked example of the Help to Grow: Management scheme shows what can be achieved in rolling out a targeted programme through a national network of business schools.

Our business schools have much to offer and much to gain by playing a full part in the delivery of Innovation Zones.

A promising start – we hope.

We welcome the Government’s announcement of their IZ plans. If rolled out and delivered effectively they represent a great opportunity for the public and private sectors. Working with the UK’s vibrant business school sector offers access to a pre-existing network of expertise that covers every region and has the capacity to markedly improve both the regional spread of wealth and economic activity.

The Chartered ABS stands ready to support the government, those regional actors shaping the agenda in the new IZs and our member schools as we seek to build a more successful, vibrant and inclusive economy for the UK.

(NB, we will be releasing findings from our research into the impact business schools have on their local regions later in Spring.)

Professor Robert MacIntosh is Faculty Pro-Vice Chancellor for Business and Law at Northumbria University and Chair of the Chartered Association of Business Schools