To celebrate the launch of the Manchester Urban Institute, and to highlight  the expertise of its academics in terms of urban research, MUI have joined up with Policy@Manchester to deliver a series of blogs focused on  the Manchester urban area.

The Manchester Urban Institute’s Inclusive Growth Analysis Unit (IGAU) is one of the University of Manchester’s most prominent articulations of its local mission, says Professor Ruth Lupton. 

Funded jointly by the University’s Faculty of Humanities and leading anti-poverty charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, IGAU was set up last year to ensure that reducing poverty and inequality are central to the economic development agenda in Greater Manchester, and also to help develop research-based solutions.

IGAU’s work 

What does this mean in practice? Well, in our first year the term ‘inclusive growth’ has certainly begun to gain traction as a policy response to persistent inequalities and poverty, and a lot of our work has been agenda setting.

Our first report helped to establish a shared set of facts about the issues for Greater Manchester, namely: low pay, low skills, labour market inequalities and an uneven economic geography. Our second report, a consultation with stakeholders, helped establish an understanding of what an inclusive growth agenda might look like for Greater Manchester.

We’ve developed this further through convening a Fair Growth conference and some policy briefings feeding into the mayoral election debate, for which we’ve synthesised evidence from other UK and international cities.

At the same time, we’ve been working to establish a stronger evidence base, monitoring indicators of growth and inclusion for Greater Manchester and tracking neighbourhood trajectories, exploring different methodological approaches.

The challenges of locally applied work 

This kind of work raises questions about the role of academics and our positioning. Have we just become local consultants, narrowing our academic focus and our theoretical contributions?

And does our criticality have to be sacrificed in order to work with, and sometimes for, the powers that be?  In other words, are ‘world leading’ and ‘locally useful’ inevitably at odds?

I don’t think they are, and I think we underestimate our non-academic colleagues if we think like this. IGAU’s work is guided and shaped by a multi-stakeholder advisory group which recognises and protects our independence and which values the critical role that academic partners can bring, as well as the independent spaces we can provide for thinking together. These colleagues provide links to wider groups and networks and address, in practical ways, the issues we are researching.

However, the truth is that being in a position where we can both focus in a timely and useful way on local issues and connect these to wider analyses and literatures demands a different kind of approach from universities and academic funders than the typical academic model of independent scholarship.

Making it happen 

To support such work, there needs to be upfront and ongoing investment in relationships and knowledge exchange, and in the skills of local partnership working. This takes time. We need to embed ‘impact’ by co-producing research questions and working together on analysis.

Rather than thinking of impact as starting when academics publish a report they have done, and finishing when they move on to something else, we need to invest in continuing relationships and enquiries.

We need long-term, embedded research partnerships in which powerful bodies of knowledge can be built up, expertise pooled, researchers trained, and where ad-hoc immediate projects can be taken on alongside more sustained academic programmes.

IGAU is enabled, up to a point, to work in this way because we have charitable funding and strategic commitment from the University. We might be seen, then, as one small-scale prototype of the international/local double-win that universities might increasingly look to develop.

But we are very small. I look forward to hearing David Blunkett’s ideas about how such partnerships could emerge more broadly in the future.