arrow-down arrow-leftarrow-rightUPP-Foundation-Logo-AssetsUPP-Foundation-Logo-AssetsUPP-Foundation-Logo-AssetsUPP-Foundation-Logo-AssetsInstagram Facebook Instagram Instagram Linkedin Linkedin Instagram twitter twitter video-play

The Kerslake Collection | Local economies and politics

The role of universities in levelling up

Estimated Read time: 11 Mins

Few people in the UK did more to champion the role of cities, civil society and civic universities than Lord Kerslake. In his roles as leader of Sheffield City Council, chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency, head of the UK civil service, chair of the board of governors at Sheffield Hallam University and chair of the UK2070 Commission (among, of course, many others), Bob reshaped the civic landscape, significantly and durably. 

Lord Kerslake was doing levelling up, in practice and in place, well before it became policy. In this essay, I want to discuss a topic central to his work: the role of civic universities in levelling up. The UPP Foundation Civic University Commission, which Lord Kerslake chaired, provides the roadmap. But before locating where we might go next on that roadmap, let me start by setting the scene on the spatial challenges facing the UK.

The levelling-up challenge

It is a tribute to Lord Kerslake’s work over many decades that no one working in politics and policy any longer doubts the scale of the spatial challenges facing the UK, and the need to address them as a matter of policy priority. The UK’s regional imbalances are the widest of any Western nation. They are wider than at any time in the past century, after decades of post-war neglect and in the face of rapid deindustrialisation. There is little sign of them reversing: they were widened recently by Covid, and then again by the cost-of-living crisis.

These wide geographic disparities exist in multiple dimensions. They show up in economic metrics, such as pay and productivity, which determine living standards, poverty and deprivation. But they are just as striking when measuring social metrics, such as pride in place, wellbeing and life expectancy, which are equally – and strikingly – dispersed within and between regions.

These multifaceted spatial needs call for a multipronged approach to spatial policy. That is why the Government’s Levelling-Up White Paper, published in 2022, set out 12 distinct missions to deliver levelling-up success. These comprised everything from productivity to pride in place, life expectancy to wellbeing.

Because spatial differences are long-lived and deeply entrenched, it will take time to meet these missions. So mission targets were set for the medium-term, starting in 2030. Long-term targets risk political chop and change – a perennial problem when it comes to UK public policy. To mitigate this risk, the levelling-up missions have recently been enshrined in statute, through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act, 2023. 

In any complex public-policy programme, a multipronged approach to decision-making and governance is also needed. Achieving that join-up across central government departments has historically, proved nigh-on impossible – despite Lord Kerslake’s best efforts as head of the civil service. 

There is a much better chance of policy coordination at local than at national level, because the coordination problems are then far less acute. Good progress has recently been made on the local-government element of this. Around a dozen new devolution deals have been put in place over the past two years, taking the proportion of the English population covered by them to around two-thirds. Existing deals have also been deepened, through a sequence of ‘trailblazers’.

Empowered local government is a necessary – but insufficient – condition for effective local governance. Given the multiple actors at play, this means bringing and binding together the public, private and civil-society sectors – the key business, academic and community civic institutional anchors. This new governance model – plural, collective – is still very much a work in progress in most places.

The core-cities challenge

The UK’s cities are often seen as a success story. But even though some are doing well, many significantly underperform international counterparts in metrics such as productivity, income, life expectancy and wellbeing. For example, levelling up productivity in the UK’s cities to the levels of European counterparts would deliver a £100 billion income dividend for the UK each year. 

Consider the Liverpool city region. The city centre, docks and Southern part of the city are unrecognisably better than they were in the 1980s. Yet you can still travel a mere five miles across the city, South to North, and experience a 15-year loss of life expectancy. And while Liverpool’s spatial disparities are more acute than many, they are not unique: similar disparities exist across all of the UK’s major cities. 

There is no singular explanation, or solution, for the underperformance of the UK’s cities. A report published last year by the RSA, working jointly with Core Cities UK, provided a detailed diagnosis of the multiple barriers to city success. It also set out some practical proposals for regenerating the economic, social and environmental health of the UK’s cities.

Among these proposals was a shift in governance at city or city-region level, the better to reflect the different interests and expertise of those responsible for regeneration. One aspect is enhanced engagement of citizens in city design – for example, through standing citizen assemblies. A second is the formation of ‘city coalitions’ of public, private and civic actors. A third is stronger and more resilient local government. One of the reasons for the underperformance of UK cities is, without question, the dilution in the capacity and capability at local-government level to get projects initiated and executed. The numbers here are stark. The Local Government Association reports that local-government budgets are almost a quarter smaller than they were in 2010. 

The costs of this are now being felt, with many councils forced to scale back services and sell assets to balance the books. Some are now effectively going bust or subject to special measures. At the very point when local leaders are being asked to shoulder the increased responsibilities of devolution, their capacity to do so – practically and financially – is diminished. 

This resource shortfall is a concern if the fruits of bottom-up regeneration are to be harvested. And it is here that civic institutions, especially in the higher-education (HE) sector, may have a crucial role to play. 

The role of civic universities

It has long been recognised that the UK’s universities have, until recently, been one of its fastest-growing sectors of the economy and one of the jewels in the UK’s crown. The UK punches well above its weight in international rankings of universities. They are a major source of income and exports for the UK. And universities are often one of the largest employers in places across all four corners of the UK. In every sense, then, they are anchor institutions. 

With the decline in fortunes of many places, the research and innovation, income and jobs generation, and capacity and capability embedded in universities has never been more needed. This was the jumping-off point for the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission in 2018-19. Its recommendations focused on how best to advance and amplify the HE sector’s civic role and contribution to levelling up.

It is worth revisiting their recommendations and asking what has changed, for better or worse, in the period since publication. Has the civic role of universities been enhanced since the Commission reported? 

Overall, it is a mixed scorecard. On the up side, there is greater acceptance – within and beyond the sector – of the central role of HE in city and regional development. That is clear in the regional-development plans being put together by the expanding numbers of mayoral combined authorities (MCAs). These typically focus on university-centred research and innovation clusters.

Recent work by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology has mapped these clusters across the UK. Most are anchored in a university or set of universities. These university-centred clusters are now being used as the pivot for place-based policymaking – for example, the Innovation Accelerators operating in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Glasgow.

Another more recent policy innovation is the creation of Investment Zones, now set up in 12 places across the UK’s regions and nations. Each of these clusters of activity is centred on a single source of sectoral business strength, and is rooted in the research and development capabilities of local universities. Investment Zones put the HE sector at the centre of civic regeneration. 

Lord Kerslake would have been thrilled to know that the first Investment Zone was announced in South Yorkshire last year, focusing on advanced manufacturing. Its centrepiece is the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Rotherham, with anchor businesses such as Rolls Royce, McClaren and Boeing.

This will form the hub of an innovation district, stretching to Sheffield, Doncaster and Barnsley. It will be accompanied by large-scale investment in housing, transport, leisure, training and the public realm. Sheffield Hallam University will be a key partner, through its Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre. This is a university-centred, but properly civic, programme of transformation for the South Yorkshire region and its citizens. And it is now being replicated across all four corners of the UK.

There is also encouraging evidence of universities collaborating on a pan-regional basis to support levelling up, harnessing their collective power. Northern Gritstone is a cross-Pennine coalition forged by the universities of Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds, providing scale-up capital for businesses across the region. In the Midlands, Midlands Innovation – a coalition of eight universities – has recently been set up to achieve similar objectives. There is considerable scope for further university collaborations, within and between regions.

It is also encouraging that more than 70 universities have signed up to civic-university agreements since the Commission reported. Often, these agreements have meant working in partnership with other local HE institutions. Perhaps the most acute pressure facing the HE sector – as with local authorities – is financial. Caps on student fees are eroding the financial base of universities and constraining their capacity to play a wider civic role. The extra funds suggested by Lord Kerslake to support universities’ enhanced civic role – for example, the Civic University Fund – have not emerged to fill the financing gap. 

The Commission’s recommendations placed great emphasis on the role the HE sector needed to play in promoting lifelong adult education. Progress on this has also been underwhelming. Government spending on adult skills is down more than 20 per cent since 2010. Numbers of apprentices are down 30 per cent from the time of the Commission report. And while degree apprenticeships are picking up pace, they remain, for most, the road less travelled. 

The Government has proposed a Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) – the entitlement being to a loan to support a restricted set of qualifications gathered in large lumps. This structure for the LLE means it is unlikely to turn the dial on lifelong learning: it is too small in scale, too lumpy in design and focused on qualifications too far up the learning ladder for those most in need. Taking out a loan is also unlikely to be attractive to young learners, given other pressures on their finances. It needs a fundamental rethink and overhaul.

So too, in fact, does the whole business model of the HE sector, not just because of the financial constraints it faces, but in light of the skills needs of future students, young and old. This new model of learning will need to be far more granular, portable, lifelong, digital and practical than its predecessors. Standard degree design struggles with these elements.

One aspect of this is micro-credentialling – recognising bitesized pieces of learning and enabling these to be put together, cumulatively and portably between institutions, over the course of a lifetime. These bitesized learnings might be recognised and rewarded through digital badges that, beyond a threshold, then morph from informal into formal qualifications. A digital-qualifications passport could record progress on a lifelong basis. Incorporating these features would be a delivery challenge, rather than business-model challenge, for the HE sector.

A new learning infrastructure such as this will be needed to make adult education – on the scale needed and with the flexibility required – a reality during the 21st century. It will need the HE sector to undertake a wholesale shift in its business practices, not only to serve its civic responsibilities, but also simply to secure its longer-term sustainability and success.

Looking ahead

The UK’s growth strategy should start from the bottom-up – from local or regional strategies underpinned by local anchor institutions. There is no question that the UK’s universities are key to the success of this strategy, perhaps even more so than at the time Lord Kerslake was publishing the findings of the Commission.

The financial challenges facing places and the HE sector are more acute now than they were back then. So too are the challenges of adapting learning and business practices to meet the changing needs of places and workplaces. Success in meeting both challenges will be required if levelling up is to advance at the pace Lord Kerslake wished – and at the pace that the people who live in these places deserve.

Andy Haldane

Estimated Read time: 11 Mins

View next essays