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The role of universities in improving the health, wealth and wellbeing of future generations

Opinion | 13 June 2024

Professor Sheldon Hanton, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research & Innovation, Cardiff Metropolitan University

Universities are frequently associated with privileged seclusion and detachment from the ‘real world’. Ivory towers if you like.

In fact, we’re a critical part of our nation’s fabric. We are major employers in our towns and cities. We work closely with one another, the public sector, industry and others, adding £5bn to the Welsh economy and supporting 61,000 jobs.

In the Cardiff capital region, universities and further education colleges recently signed an agreement to enhance the region’s economic wellbeing. It builds on collaborations that have already secured nearly £100m for southeast Wales.

This is why each university has its own blend of research and innovation expertise and specialisms. When each has the space to develop bespoke assets, the collective can cohere into a regional power with both strength and breadth.

Like many modern universities, Cardiff Met focuses on applied research, much of it with significant and measurable impacts beyond academia. The most recent UK-wide assessment of research – REF2021 – found almost 80% of our impact outside academia was either Internationally Excellent or World Leading. That’s something of which we’re proud and on which we’ll build.

But our work must be underpinned by social responsibility. There is little use in our research having an impact that is short-lived or that comes at an unsustainable cost to future generations.

Building our 2030 Strategy for research has involved mapping our strengths against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). Developed in 2015, these are a framework for securing peaceful and prosperous means of continuing the advancement of people and planet. A number of universities have adopted them as a means of strategizing, focusing and evidencing their societal contributions. We found 95% of our REF2021 submission aligned with the UN SDGs, particularly ‘Good Health and Wellbeing’, ‘Quality Education’ and ‘Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure’. As a Welsh university, aligning our research output in this way has also enabled us to contribute to the delivery of Wales’s world leading ‘Wellbeing of Future Generations Act’. We need to make sure our research supports the Act’s goals: To make Wales more prosperous, resilient, healthy and equal. To improve community cohesion and the vibrancy of our culture and language. To remain globally responsible.

What do our contributions look like and why do they matter? Here are some examples:

UN SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being

Our health science research has included work on stroke prevention, heart health and the design of low-cost trauma packs for sub-Saharan Africa, as well as diabetes foot and retinal screening initiatives in Wales and Mauritius. Art and Design researchers developed HUG™, a multi-sensory comforting device that is clinically proven to help people with advanced dementia, and is now available via NHS prescription.

UN SDG 4: Quality Education

Our pedagogic researchers have enhanced the use of technology in modern language teaching, improving the practice of over 9,300 educators and benefitting 50,000 students internationally. We have underpinned the upskilling of over 1,000 teachers developing the new Curriculum for Wales, impacting the learning experience of nearly 15,000 Welsh pupils.

UN SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

Our ZERO2FIVE Food Industry Centre supports hundreds of Welsh food companies, delivering an extra £348,000,000, 1,000 jobs and 1,700 new food products to the Welsh economy. The Creative Leadership and Enterprise Centre has supported business growth of over £155,000,000 across 900 businesses, saving or creating over 2,000 jobs.

PDR, our commercial research and innovation centre, has been ranked as the UK’s best design consultancy in the iF World Design Guide Index since 2017. It has helped more than 1,000 companies increase their combined projected revenue by over £1 billion. Its research has also underpinned seven policy instruments in six countries, influencing €358,000,000 of structural fund provision and direct government investment of over €14,000,000 into more than 2,600 European companies.

Ivory towers? I don’t think so.

This article first appeared as a University View column in the Western Mail on 13 June, 2024.