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Nicolas Wallet explains how a project involving universities across Europe is bridging the gap between higher education and economic development and ensuring knowledge is shared

Delegates at a Unicreds conference in the Czech Republic on how to create an innovative business culture.

You might be forgiven for thinking that areas ripe for urban renewal are a world away from the ivory towers of academia – and yet for the last two years, universities across Europe have been actively engaged in a collaborative series of work programmes looking at how different models of higher education can contribute to regional economic development.

The project is called University Collaboration in Regional Development Spaces (Unicreds), and it’s led by Cornwall Council. Its aim is to continue the transformation of regions with underperforming economies, guiding and informing the development of research and innovation and helping the creation of new models for economic development in other regions through a toolkit of case studies and best practice.

At the heart of the work programmes are effective interactions between universities, government organisations and the private sector, the so-called ‘triple helix’. The project is majority funded by the EU via the ERDF and the Interreg IVC programme, in addition to co-financing from each of the 15 partners from countries across the EU.

In mainland Europe, partners from Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary and Sweden are participating. Here in the UK, the Unicreds partners are the Combined Universities in Cornwall (CUC) and the University of the Highlands and Islands. CUC is regarded as one of the project’s best practice models of a decentralised, multi-campus approach to delivering higher education.

SPREADING BEST PRACTICE
So what does Unicreds actually do? Its principal purpose is to share examples of best practice – of instances of successful collaboration between universities, businesses and the public sector. Visit the organisation’s website and you’ll find dozens of work packages and case studies from all over Europe. Unicreds hopes these good practices can be developed into a transferable model for economic development.

A good example of cooperation between the public sector, business and a university can be found in Cornwall. The county’s specific geographical conditions – in particular, its long rocky coastline, and its offshore wave and tidal patterns – are matched by local academic excellence in research in renewable energy sources and also by a strategic focus on renewable energy from regional and national government. This combination led to the identification of marine renewable energy as a potential growth sector for Cornwall.

Financial investment comprised £2m from the technology strategy board to help businesses develop wave and tidal technologies. Convergence capacity building funds were matched with South West Regional Development Agency funding to allow the universities of Exeter and Plymouth, two of the CUC partners, to build on their research bases in marine renewable energy and create the Peninsula Research Institute for Marine Renewable Energy (Primare).

It brings together academics, international researchers and facilities and supports a knowledge and technology transfer team that works with businesses to channel research needs and to support high quality job creation across the region.

The result has been the Wave Hub, a wave energy device testing facility off the north coast of Cornwall. It has a capacity for commercial devices with up to 20MW – enough electricity to power approximately 7,000 homes – but it has been designed with the potential to scale up to 50MW in the future.

The research support offered through Primare is integral to the success of this project as a pioneer of future potential for renewable energy, and CUC has shared the knowledge gained from its involvement in the initiative with other Unicreds regions and universities. The benefits have been significant. Substantial investment has been made in new equipment and research. At a local economic level, industrial development activities, including those aimed at supporting the production, installation and maintenance of marine renewable energy devices, have already started with businesses at the docks at Falmouth and Hayle harbour.

A further significant development in this area took place at the start of this year, when the creation of the South West Marine Energy Park was formally announced. This project aims to bring together business and research and attract investment in an industry said to be worth more than £70bn to the UK economy by 2050.

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