Maximising the impact of universities to rebalance the UK economy
The Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine, Levelling Up – straplines have changed over the years, but the challenges of rebalancing the UK economy and releasing untapped potential across our regions remain all too familiar.
Evidence of this regional imbalance is stark, not least in terms of lower productivity. But what’s also stark is its impact. Fewer jobs, wages below the national average, young people with fewer opportunities, and often wider health impacts. It leads many to feel like they get a raw deal.
This is a familiar picture in many of our towns and cities, and the increasing political consensus on the need to tackle this challenge is welcome. But translation of these good intentions into real, practical action and investment at a national and local level can feel elusive.
The Levelling Up White Paper identified the key drivers to create a better sense of place – tackling skills gaps, fostering innovation, and attracting new investment. Universities are uniquely placed to help deliver – and they are more committed than ever to working with partners on their local key economic and societal challenges.
The vast majority of UK universities are now members of the Civic University Network. Hosted by Sheffield Hallam University, this network shares evidence, best practice and resources to maximise universities’ regional impact. But whilst there is a real appetite within the sector for this agenda, the scale of challenge cannot be underestimated, and there are some obvious areas where political leadership and action could drive greater impact.
Indeed, the critical role of universities is not always well understood at a national level, with discourse in Westminster often failing to recognise the value that universities add in addressing regional disparities. Explicit recognition of the role that universities play could drive further progress and move the higher education debate on to more productive territory.
There is also a clear opportunity on skills. As the ‘Going further and higher’ report by the Civic University Network and the Independent Commission on the College of the Future sets out, a more joined-up education ecosystem across colleges and universities would create clearer progression routes for individual learners, and a more coherent approach to meet local employers’ skills needs. We need a long-term strategy to create a fairer and more sustainable funding model for both sectors, financial support systems that work for students across every life stage, and a joined-up approach to regulation and oversight to reduce unproductive competition.
A third opportunity is around the role of universities as key partners in economic growth. In England alone universities contribute £95 billion to the economy and support more than 815,000 jobs. Developing innovation districts, providing SME support, driving research and development, the list is vast. Universities should be seen as central to growth, with national and regional growth initiatives designed so higher education and other partners can collaborate and contribute.
The period ahead will be critical to determining whether we emerge from the challenges of Covid and the cost of living crisis as a yet more unbalanced society, or whether this proves to be a turning point in translating good intentions into meaningful impact. If we are to achieve the latter, then universities must surely be seen as critical to this issue here in the UK, just as they are in so many countries around the world.
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