With the right policies in place, the university can repeat the past 25 years’ economic return within the next decade, says Anthony Freeling

By Anthony Freeling, Acting Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge

In last week’s UK budget, the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, announced the 12 English regions with the potential to host an “investment zone”. Areas that can “identify a location where they can offer a bold and imaginative partnership between local government and a university or research institute in a way that catalyses new innovation clusters” will have “access to £80 million of support for a range of interventions including skills, infrastructure, tax reliefs and business rates retention”.

The ability of universities to create local value is beyond question, and, as confirmed by a report by London Economics published today, the University of Cambridge is the UK’s primary example.

It’s hard for the human mind to conceptualise large sums of money, so comparisons are useful to give a sense of scale. As such, the report suggests that the University of Cambridge’s economic contribution to the UK, a staggering £30 billion, appears to be almost four times that of the globally followed English Premier League.

The comparison doesn’t end there. Just as every Saturday afternoon football matches kick off all over the country, supporting local jobs and encouraging spending in local economies, the analysis demonstrates how Cambridge supports the economy in every region of the UK, generating more than 86,000 jobs nationwide.

Nearly four-fifths – 78 per cent – of that economic contribution is generated by companies associated with the university. For every £1 we spend on research and innovation, we create £11.70 of economic impact, the highest figure of any UK university.

This success is not down to chance. It is the result of long-term strategic decision-making that has established the university at the heart of one of the world’s most successful research and technology clusters.

It is the result of a culture of excellence, underpinned by a depth and breadth of teaching, research and innovation, that connects the discovery of new knowledge with the expertise to turn these ideas into companies and organisations that change people’s lives.

It is the result of years of harnessing a winning combination of venture capital, government support and infrastructure funding through a very deliberate strategy of investing in innovation and commercialisation. This includes an enlightened intellectual property (IP) policy that encourages further investment; a culture that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship; and the establishment of both a knowledge-transfer arm, Cambridge Enterprise, and investor arm, Cambridge Innovation Capital, which make capital available at all stages of the investment journey from pre-seed to early scaling.

The prime minister and the chancellor have often said that they would like the UK to be the next Silicon Valley. We think the success of Cambridge and the “Silicon Fen” demonstrates that this is already in motion. But we are not resting on our laurels. This is why we’ve used the convening power of the university, alongside Cambridge Enterprise and Cambridge Innovation Capital, to bring together 100 partners, including AstraZeneca, Microsoft and Arm, to establish a new strategy body called Innovate Cambridge. The goal will be to accomplish the same impact the university has had over the past 25 years in the next 10.

We’ve already begun the challenge of identifying what we need in order to achieve this. First, better infrastructure, not only in Cambridge itself but across the region, including the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. We need more laboratory space, affordable housing and better transport – mirroring the ingredients that drive success in competitor cities such as Boston in the US.

Second, we need an enhanced ability to attract talented, highly skilled individuals from across the world, via flexible low-cost visa routes focused on expanding the R&D sector.

Third, we need better investment and access to capital funding. We need to make the most of upcoming pension reforms that will allow funds to invest in more risky projects, such as R&D. And we need a commitment from government to ensure that R&D spending remains a priority.

Nor are these only priorities for Cambridge. All 12 English investment zones (plus those planned for elsewhere in the UK) will almost benefit hugely if our partners across the UK, including national and local government, work with us to implement this blueprint for future economic growth.

The UK is lucky to be home to the world’s biggest and best professional football competition, but it also has an enormous advantage as host to some of the most dynamic and productive universities on the face of the planet. Policies and funding that support rapid commercialisation of innovative R&D are the best way to shoot the UK to the top of the premier league of economic success.

Anthony Freeling is acting vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge.