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The Kerslake Collection | Local economies and politics

Developing skills and innovation to support a place 

In 1824, in the Bridgewater Arms Hotel, Manchester’s Mechanics Institute was founded by a group of local industrialists with the ‘desire to improve the commercial, industrial and technological life’ of the rapidly growing city. This new institution, like others established at a similar time throughout the country, was: 

All were imbued with purpose, ambition and a bloody-minded commitment to driving economic and social change. This was a city and its institutions where any future was possible and where anything could – and invariably – did happen. It was a place of which the rest of the country and the world would take notice. As Benjamin Disraeli, chancellor of the exchequer and prime minister during this industrial era, noted, ‘What Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow.’ 

In the 19th century, the city was also home to a series of individuals and movements that would have a lasting social as well as economic impact – such as the Chartists and the suffragettes, the first trade unions, the free traders and the abolitionists. This was a place of rapid social and economic change, radical protest and revolutionary thought. Education and innovation – wanting to do things differently – were at its heart. The Peterloo Massacre had taken place just a few hundred yards away from the Bridgewater Arms Hotel, and the rooms where Marx and Engels met in 1845 to work on their 1848 Communist Manifesto were also nearby.

For all of these deep economic, social and cultural changes, those early versions of civic-based education were precursors of powerful institutions today. Manchester’s universities and colleges were and remain a vital part of the social, economic and institutional infrastructure of the place, whether as a campus, a university centre or a full-blown university in its own right. These institutions help provide a platform for innovation and wealth creation, for delivering public services and good local government and for improving the quality of life. 

The Levelling Up White Paper sets out a ‘six capitals’ framework – itself adapted from thinking by the Bennett Institute at the University of Cambridge. Supported by Conservatives and Labour, this white paper identifies human and intangible capital (graduates and research) alongside physical, financial, social and institutional capital. In each, we can see how universities and colleges playing a significant role. And as the analysis shows, both thriving and struggling places depend on strong and engaged local institutions as part of the infrastructure and capacity of a place – in turn multiplying further activity and wealth of all kinds.

Basic infrastructure, investment and strong institutions matter. A clear, consistent approach to building or supporting them has too often been missing – whether from government, civic-minded local benefactors or sometimes within or from the universities themselves. They were created as institutions for places – to be a key part of local or regional infrastructure and to drive wealth and wellbeing. Without acknowledging and performing this role, we lose the connections between places and the universality that binds people together. That’s the basis on which public support for universities exists – and we have often grown and thrived where places and communities haven’t.

The UK – and England in particular – has some of the deepest spatial inequalities and regional economic divergence among all OECD countries: huge and growing local and regional inequalities in health, education, public services and earnings or standard of living. These differences have been increasing for more than three decades, with London’s productivity now more than one and a half times the UK average. For most of the 1980s, the productivity levels of the capital’s economy were typically up to 128 per cent of the UK average. From around 1988 onwards, these gaps have rapidly increased, to the point where London’s productivity today is around 170 per cent of the UK average. Andy Haldane, former deputy governor of the Bank of England, described the UK as a ‘hub with no spokes’, with many parts of the country lacking any genuine involvement in knowledge, innovation and research and development-related activities. And, as John Burn Murdoch in the Financial Times has concluded, without London, the UK would be poorer than Mississippi.

The political shocks that the UK has experienced in recent years – including the implementation of austerity (cuts to public services and investment), the 2016 Brexit vote and voting shifts in the traditionally Labour-voting ‘red wall’, particularly in the 2019 general election – are in many ways a result of these vastly different interregional experiences. According to economist Philip McCann, they have given rise to a profound ‘geography of discontent’ . Indeed, inequality between places has become one of the most important issues throughout the country, irrespective of political loyalties. 

These extreme inequalities need to be tackled urgently if we are to improve the UK’s economic performance. As economic journalist Martin Wolf recently concluded, ‘Regional policy must be at the heart of any sensible strategy for growth.’. Inequality is both a city and a regional problem, with most cities outside the South East underperforming compared with the UK average, as well as with equivalent places in the OECD. 

There are a range of issues contributing to this – the usual agglomeration processes whereby the benefits from the concentration of knowledge, networks and capitals are not as evident in many UK cities, nor is there any systematic, widespread and large-scale knowledge diffusion beyond London and the wider South East. And even within our best-performing cities and regions, there are very high levels of economic and social inequality that universities and colleges must tackle.

The UK is also characterised by extreme political centralisation, together with rapid institutional churn and instability, particularly in regional and economic policy. This has accelerated in recent years, and increasing short-termism means that policy is continually chopped and changed, particularly in regional, economic and skills policies. But there is now growing political consensus over devolution and levelling up. This year, more mayors will be elected or re-elected across England – there will be more combined authorities and more local growth or industrial strategies. England is slowly rebuilding the way government works, and with it a more active, strategic, regionally conscious state. This is a political and an economic response to inequality and centralisation – and one that universities should take note of. Universities should play their part in building these institutions and policymaking capacity, as well as acting as important partners in local growth strategies.

This agenda potentially offers more continuity besides a broad consensus on institutions and devolution to city regions. Recent announcements on building electric vehicles in Sunderland and establishing battery factories in Somerset, together with the extension of investment zones built on research and development and skills in key sectors, also suggest that there won’t be too much of a conceptual or practical jump to a ‘securonomics’ industrial strategy promised by the Labour Party.

But English higher-education policy has been relatively place-blind for many years. So too have been the missions and strategies of many individual universities. The dislocation of place or the relegation of civic interests when, in the words of the Civic Universities Commission, ‘University policy remains almost wholly national,’ feels precisely the wrong approach for today’s politics. It downplays institutional history and purpose – but, worse, it potentially betrays a lack of interest in what happens to people and places. And the less universities feel or are connected to places, the less those same places will feel connected to them. Why, then, might these same people and places care about funding for teaching and learning or for science and research? Why might they care if a local university encounters financial difficulties, making redundancies or closing courses? It’s a long way from the civic boosterism and local pride that saw the founding of the Mechanics Institutes and the civic universities such as Sheffield, Newcastle and Birmingham.

The alternative, which we have witnessed in recent years, is the ‘revenge of the places that don’t matter’ and a voter backlash that still threatens to undermine institutions, strategies and local and national democracy: disconnected, unhappy electorates and growing gaps between graduates and the rest. Michael Sandel’s criticisms of meritocracy – the winners not caring sufficiently about everyone else – or David Goodhart’s ‘anywheres’ versus ‘somewheres’ – show us that we need to think much more seriously about polarisation and the prospects of people and places without higher education. Instead, in an election year and with a likely change in government, universities are still more likely to be preoccupied with the funding and regulatory systems of today and biased towards the status quo. As a sector, higher education finds it difficult to imagine a policy world beyond the one it finds itself in, preferring policies that improve each of the building blocks: tuition fees that rise with inflation, full economic costing for research, more specialist funding for expensive subjects, more support for international students. They’re looking at what the state must do for universities, rather than the other way around. 

So what then should the civic mission of universities be in this context, and how might it help sector thinking in the aftermath of the 2024 UK general election? Is it just to be a good institutional citizen – setting out the role and reach of universities in their places? Is it to describe the range of ways large institutions have an effect on a place: economic impact studies, local recruitment pledges and various social-responsibility or public-engagement activities? Is it a way of describing new buildings as investments in or for places? The meetings and agreements with local government that should already exist and happen anyway? 

Civic purpose should not be an add on – a nice-to-have mission that can be questioned or cut back when finances and day-to-day resources are squeezed. Instead of being peripheral, it should be central and fundamental to university strategies. Playing a part in the renewal of the country involves playing a part in the local as well as the national economy, for communities nearby as well as for society as a whole. These were the ambitions that drove the founders of so many institutions, and it is a history that still resonates today. It is part of who and what universities are. It also offers an opportunity for reconnecting and reaffirming these links to place – an opportunity to help rebuild local economies, communities and democracies and to renew wider public support for universities and what they do. 

And it offers a central policy opportunity for the next government. One of the main reasons that the levelling-up agenda has struggled has been the lack of a coherent or convincing economic strategy for towns, cities and regions. An important part of this has been a failure to recognise and embrace the role of universities in driving innovation, research and development, local public services and being part of the essential institutional infrastructure of places. Instead, the preference has been for markets and competition organised and regulated on a national, place-blind basis, and for some an active desire to weaken their influence and role, or to engage them only in self-destructive culture wars. A new government should move on from these to adopt an agenda that maximises universities’ contribution to places and to local economies and democracies – incentivising civic engagement, maximising institutional impact, and actively collaborating with colleges and devolved institutions. That could mean new campuses and collaborations between universities and colleges, as well as strategic partnerships with local and combined authorities. A place-based approach to research and development – including opportunities for UK Research and Innovation and the research councils to incentivise capacity and policy solutions that tackle regional and local inequality.

The next government has an opportunity to reconfigure the system and prioritise all of these things. And universities have an opportunity to help: to rebuild places, local economies and services, and to rebuild wider public support for the role and importance – and cost – of higher education. Universities needed that support when they were founded, and they need it now. As Bob Kerslake wrote in his foreword to the Civic Universities Commission’s final report:

Lord Kerslake was right then, and his advice is still relevant today. His championing of a civic mission offers one of the best ways of tackling deep local and regional inequality and rebuilding wider public support for our universities.

Professor Andy Westwood

Estimated Read time: 12 Mins

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