Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli - Principal and Vice-Chancellor

Universities hold the key to economic recovery

Principal of the University, Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli is clear that universities hold the key to economic recovery.

As the world begins to emerge from the initial devastating impact of COVID-19, the question of what our economy and society will look like is playing on many minds in Scotland and beyond.

It is abundantly clear that things will not simply return to normal – and a huge, collective effort will be required for recovery.

I firmly believe that the contribution that universities make will be absolutely crucial to that recovery. Universities stand ready and able to help society confront new challenges, aligning ourselves even more closely with societal need. 

A COVID-19 economic downturn which risks rivalling the Great Depression could scar the labour market, as previous deep recessions have done. Our role in providing opportunity and equipping our young people with the skills they need to succeed is only going to be more important in a fragile economy.

The value of research couldn’t be any clearer. Across the world, universities are playing a vital role in supporting the efforts to combat the virus. At Glasgow, we are proud to host one of the UK’s three national testing centres for COVID-19 (the UK Lighthouse Labs), staffed by our researchers. The MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research is screening for potential COVID-19 treatments, piloting new clinical trials, and helping to track the virus, as well as collaborating with one of the UK vaccine trials. Just some examples of the sector’s determination to step up and contribute however we can.

Post-crisis, universities’ contribution to the effort will only accelerate. Innovation will have a crucial role to play in getting the country, and the world, back on its feet.

And universities don’t just deliver teaching and research. They are major drivers of the economy – for example, the University of Glasgow contributes more than £1.5bn in economic output.

But we can and should do more. Last year I published a report for the Scottish Government on how universities can best harness and maximise their economic impact for the good of all, and now the current crisis offers an opportunity to re-examine some of the assumptions about how our sector operates. Our towns and cities are brimming with potential – and our universities can be the catalyst to turn this potential into tangible economic results. 

How can we better align R&D ambitions with post-COVID economic and industrial strategies? What civic role might universities play in helping to stimulate and sustain local recoveries? What is the right level of competition within the sector and what should we do in the future, that perhaps we weren’t prioritising before? These are just some of the many questions we must give serious thought to and which will shape the sector for years to come.

I firmly believe that if we take the right decisions, universities can and will play a central role in our economic recovery.  This will require investment and compromise on the part of both government and the higher education sector: but with all parties working together, there is no reason why our universities cannot continue to thrive, and to enhance our social, economic and cultural contribution to our national life.

First published June 2020.