After months of campaigning with debate and discussions taking place across all four corners of the region and encapsulating a broad spectrum of political viewpoints, the West Midlands has elected its first ever Metro Mayor. Congratulations to Andy Street.
I’m pleased to say the regional universities played an active role in supporting the debate. The West Midlands Combined Universities, which has been set up to support the combined authority and its newly appointed Mayor, hosted hustings during the run up to the election at each of the institutions that make up the partnership – Coventry, Birmingham City and Wolverhampton.
As such, business people, community leaders and members of the general public from the three major cities in the region listened first hand to what the candidates had to say and questioned them about their plans. What we witnessed at these events was passionate, sometimes lively debate about the opportunities facing our region and how we maximise them.
What also emerged during these discussions, as I observed following earlier face to face meetings with the candidates, was that despite their political differences it was evident that all were immensely proud of the West Midlands, retaining a deep understanding of its history and traditions while being firmly committed to securing its future prosperity.
With a remit covering housing, transport and economic policy, the new Mayor will clearly play a role in shaping the region. There is scope to make a big impact but, naturally, there will be obstacles to overcome, such as ensuring we have the skills base required to achieve long-term progress.
From the feedback I have received during meetings with business leaders, policy makers, representatives from across the third sector and other interested stakeholders, skills training and development are a priority for the region. In other words, we need people with the right skills in place to achieve our ambitions, be that building new homes or new modes of transport.
That’s where our universities come in. Fostering knowledge and skills is core activity for us. It always has been but increasingly we are focusing more and more on connecting skills and research with the needs of business and society. And not just in terms of honing our courses so that we are producing work-ready, highly employable graduates who can hit the ground running. That’s obviously important and we continually monitor the job market to ‘future proof’ our courses to ensure they meet the changing demands of industry.
We also have a strong track record in offering work–based learning opportunities, helping to upskill those already in employment, and we have built close links with companies to develop higher and degree apprenticeships, allowing students to earn while studying for higher level qualifications at the same time.
But in Coventry and elsewhere we are also working more closely with business and the local community, applying our expertise to encourage innovation, research and development while boosting our students’ skills and knowledge base through work on ‘live’ projects with industry partners.
Coventry University’s formal links include its Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering with Unipart and the recently announced Centre for Connected and Autonomous Automotive Research with Horiba Mira.
Given our motoring heritage, it is right that we are partnering with major players like Horiba and our work on driverless technology and other aspects of vehicle design, which will soon be bolstered by the opening of our new National Transport Design Centre in Coventry, is playing its part in the city’s renaissance. Indeed, the importance of the car industry to our region and the UK as a whole formed a key part of a speech made by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown during a visit to our campus last week.
Such coalitions between academia and industry are, in my view, necessary. Collaborative working is essential to secure a bright future for our region. As a sector, we can help local councils and the combined authority forge a way forward.
The opportunity for the new Mayor is to bring together differing opinions – many aired during the campaign – into a coherent plan of action for our region. Doubtless there will be disputes and disagreements along the way but by working together we can make the most out of devolution and facilitate a power shift from Westminster to the West Midlands.