Arc Universities

As founding Chair of the Arc Universities Group, Professor Sir Peter Gregson has been instrumental in shaping the shared vision across the nine universities to ensure that ground-breaking ideas and innovation helps to drive sustainable economic growth in the Oxford to Cambridge Arc. In this article, he reflects on the potential of the region as he prepares to hand over the baton to Professor Alistair Fitt, Vice Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University.

“In 2021 Ernst and Young asserted that the world’s Top 8 Innovation districts accounted for 86% of the world’s innovation activity. With the Oxford to Cambridge Arc already generating £112 billion of economic output each year, this could double to over £200 billion by 2050 if the region fully capitalises on its existing strength in science, technology and high value manufacturing – a return of investment ratio of 4:1.

Looking to the innovation powerhouses across the globe – from Silicon Valley and Boston in the US, and closer to home, in London’s Shoreditch or Eindhoven in the Netherlands, these provide tremendous inspiration for the Arc’s bold ambition. They all share commonalities that have helped to create centres of innovation excellence; A triple helix partnership between Government, private sector and academia, access to R&D and skills of universities, clear areas of innovation and proven competitive advantage, and access to finance. With the right investment, the Oxford to Cambridge Arc could join this coveted top tier within a matter of a few years – and what a boost for the UK this would be.

Stronger together 

On budget day this year the Arc became one of the Government’s ‘Pathfinder Projects’.  Nationally significant to the UK economy, this is a huge commitment to ensuring infrastructure investment delivers regional economic growth. A Spatial Framework, developed with community engagement at its core, will set the long-term, holistic strategy to unlocking clean growth and achieving net zero alongside environmental sustainability. The plan is also to establish a Growth Body to promote the Arc’s economic strengths on a global platform, inspired by the success of the Midlands Engine and Northern Powerhouse.

Such ambition and commitment is encouraging – 30 local authorities, three LEPs and one Combined Authority, nine universities together with five government departments working together, under MHCLG, cultivating the Arc’s potential to become a global innovation powerhouse.

The Green Arc

All of this must be considered with the environment at the front and centre of every decision we take. Both the Arc Leadership Group’s Economic Prospectus and the Government’s publication on the Spatial Framework have a combined focus on economic growth and our environment, both now and in the future. The creation of a set of Environment Principles  form the basis for an OxCam-wide Environmental Strategy. Within this, the Arc Universities Group Environment Partnerships Board, chaired by Professor Simon Pollard of Cranfield University, is looking at how we realise the Arc’s environmental vision to protect and enhance the natural capital of the Arc, while supporting the green economy and recovery opportunities in the region. Whatever we do must ensure that the Arc leads the way in the zero carbon living and working of the future.

Talent, skills and R&D

The universities have self-organised into the Arc Universities Group, playing a pivotal role in the region’s future. The strength of the group comes largely from such a diverse mix of institutions – the Open University’s reach, the R&D intensity of world-leading institutions Oxford, Cambridge and Cranfield; the skills development and SME reach of Oxford Brookes, Bedfordshire, Northampton, Anglia Ruskin and Buckinghamshire New University, with entrepreneurship and enterprise cutting through the curricula for all nine institutions. 

Innovation and competitive advantage 

In their economic prospectus published in late 2020, the Arc Leadership Group identified five areas of competitive advantage for the region: Life Sciences; Space; Sustainable Aviation; Future energy; and Future mobility. The Arc Universities are leading on the first three areas.

Life sciences: The Arc is home to a third of England’s employment in biotechnology R&D. With the University of Oxford and Astra Zeneca’s vaccine leading the fight against the pandemic, and Astra Zeneca’s recent relocation of its global HQ to Cambridge, these are great illustrations of the plans for a link-up between Oxford and Cambridge, championing capabilities in AI, robotics, machine learning for diagnostics and future pandemic preparedness.

The Arc in Space: The Arc Universities, working alongside government, the Satellite Applications Catapult and industry, are using space science to deliver advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and quantum applications. The Oxford to Cambridge Arc is home to a cluster of space companies ar Harwell, with advanced proposals to develop Westcott Venture Park in Buckinghamshire as a centre of excellence for research and development in rocket propulsion. The combined result will be the most intensive space cluster in Europe, supporting small satellite launch facilities in Scotland and Cornwall.

Sustainable Aviation: The government’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and the urgent need to contain and address environmental impact, demands a complete overhaul of the aviation system. The organisation, Sustainable Aviation, has shown how aviation can accommodate a 70% growth in passengers by 2050 while reducing net carbon emissions levels from just over 30 million tonnes of CO2 per year down to zero. But it requires transformative developments across the value chain of the sector. OCAVIA, the Oxford-Cambridge Arc’s Virtual Institute in Aviation, is a grouping of five of the universities of the Arc, working together to complement existing efforts in the creation of a zero-emission aviation sector. Nowhere else in the UK does the capability exist in such concentration as the Arc.

Access to finance 

This is the area that needs the most work. Certainly not because of lack of interest, but because there is no channel as yet.  Banks, investors, property developers are ready – but does the money flow? The simple answer, not yet. 

To date, success has been concentrated at either end of the Arc, but the great potential for growth is in the middle. The Arc Growth Body is coming, for the whole region, not just its world leading cities. This will provides the conduit to both government and private sector investment. With careful, confident and targeted intervention and encouragement, the Oxford to Cambridge Arc can become a Global Innovation Powerhouse. As Professor Neil Bowles, lead on space at the University of Oxford has said: “these projects will take hundreds of millions, but this is the foundation to return value in the billions”. 

Can the Oxford to Cambridge Arc join the top tier?  Yes it can. In many ways it is already there.”

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