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The Briefing

Our View – June 2017

by Claire Aiken


I wonder what Benjamin Franklin, one of the great societal contributors in US history would make of civic leadership in our world today?

I wonder what Benjamin Franklin, one of the great societal contributors in US history would make of civic leadership in our world today?  As one of the founding fathers of the US, Franklin’s imprint on his community and country reached far beyond his 80 odd years, indeed it was apt, that it was he who said ‘some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until they are 75’. 

A major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity, he is also known for inventing the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove but his greatest contributions were arguably his commitment to form a better society and enhance civic opportunities.

The Leather Apron Club, which he formed became the foundation for his civic endeavours, and it considered how Philadelphia society could be enriched and improved.  With libraries only available to the wealthy it developed plans for the first lending library, created a street cleaning company, set up the first fire department as well as an academy for the education of young people which would go on to become the University of Pennsylvania.

Franklin had expertise in a range of genres and a personal drive to be a champion of civic progression and economic prosperity.  Albeit a different era and completely different world the organisations he empowered and the sort of partnership approach he used to effect change for his community and country is something we can still learn from.

Today universities play an intrinsic role, not only, in economic development but also in building a more cohesive society where health, success and well–being is not an aspiration but an expectation for all. 

In the North we are fortunate to have two universities in Queen’s and Ulster that not only provide us with outstanding civic leaders that support a range of industries and sectors but are also creating wealth and well–being in new areas and in new ways every single year. 

We talk a lot in Northern Ireland about the potential for, and impact of having, a knowledge based economy but we must better empower our universities to help us deliver that.

Last week Queen’s announced a new initiative in ‘Global Thinking Locally’ in conjunction with Belfast City Council to demonstrate its commitment to support the development of skills, innovation and economic prosperity.  The university brought its staff and students across its faculties out of their more comfortable academic environments to Belfast City Hall to interactively engage with members of the public to demonstrate the civic impact its campuses are making.

A key underlying message was the need for inclusivity.  Currently 32% of first year entrants at Queen’s are from deprived areas of our society and with outreach programmes in place to raise aspiration and attainment such as ‘Pathway to Opportunity’ the commitment is in place to help address this challenging issue.

Listening to Pro Vice Chancellor Patrick Johnston’s address, I was struck by his determination to make Queen’s a civic leader and his resolve to ensure the university maximises the opportunities its expertise and influence can provide for people across so many facets of our community.  He spoke about Queen’s global knowledge and how it is positioned to take a lead on economic and social issues that are so pressing. 

As a university that is in the world’s top 1% with 600 international staff from 78 countries and 2,000 international students it is well placed to bring world leading research to our city and to help tackle some of its biggest challenges.

Queen’s has recognised the benefits of a ‘place based’ approach to growth where countries or regions identify and select a targeted number of priority areas for investment. As an organisation it is championing its resources to drive competitive advantage in Northern Ireland and to build and create a revenue generating economy, helping to solve wider issues that affect local policymakers, businesses and communities through ‘place–shaping’ interventions.

However, we can’t have a knowledge based economy which supports civic success, well–being and equality without a strong skills base.  Funding to the higher education sector has been falling since 2010 and in the academic year 2015 – 2016 it fell by a further 10.8%.  It is concerning that Northern Ireland is the only UK region that has divested from higher education in recent years.

37% of our A level children leave to seek third level opportunities out of Northern Ireland because we do not have the places for them because of funding cuts.  If we are to truly implement a place based approach to growth, develop Northern Ireland as a centre for knowledge based enterprises and maximise on both indigenous and FDI opportunities we need a varied and robust skills base.  Devolution of corporation tax is a blunt instrument without it.

As a founding father of the US Benjamin Franklin used his expertise in science, business and many other fields to build a better society for all at a local level.  Nearly 300 years on, we need to empower our Universities to enable them to deliver that civic leadership spirit for the benefit of everyone in our society and leave a legacy for generations to come.