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The Kerslake Collection | Local economies and politics

Universities as regional infrastructure


It is widely recognised that higher education is a huge contributor to the UK economy in its own right, as well as an engine for productivity, innovation and prosperity. But the prevailing political narrative and the regulatory and funding framework for universities make strategic use of this asset very difficult, and create barriers that prevent universities from delivering broader and deeper regional benefits.

There is strong cross-party recognition of the importance of addressing inequality between regions, with important differences between the major parties. For Labour, universities are a key asset. Meanwhile, the Conservatives, despite their rhetoric about the potential of higher education to support the levelling-up agenda, have in practice driven place-agnostic policies focused on more intensive competition across the sector (such as the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act). A wider framework of higher-education policy since the 1990s has, however, created obstacles to the potential for universities to focus on regional issues. 

In this essay, we set out the case for universities as regional infrastructure, using the University of East Anglia (UEA) as a case study for the strengths of our universities when it comes to addressing regional issues, and for the missed opportunities that the political economy of higher education entrains. We begin by noting current policy positions before making the case that, in order to unlock more social benefits of universities, incentive structures need to change, and we need new funding routes through the UK Infrastructure Bank, with accountability through Civic University Agreements.

Higher education in strategies for regional growth: positioning, challenges and opportunities 

This section considers the government’s 2022 Levelling Up White Paper and Labour’s ‘A New Business Model for Britain’ (2024), to understand the relationship between regional economies and the HE sector. The white paper repeatedly refers to universities and their benefits, particularly in relation to regionally focused innovation clusters. But it is late in the document (p197) that they are addressed as the primary subject for policy attention with a familiar civic framing – ‘HE institutions have a vital part to play in supporting regional economies, as significant local employers and through their role as anchor institutions supporting regional collaboration’ – and the announcement of investment in the Civic University Network. This was hugely transformative (the government got a lot for a very modest £50,000), paving the way for the National Civic Impact Accelerator. But this is an outlier investment. Universities are otherwise described throughout as a partner to the state and private sector in delivering innovative research and providing skills and aspiration for host populations. But they are rarely presented as curiosity-led institutions that might deliver unexpected benefits through scholarly enquiry. 

Labour’s ‘A New Business Model for Britain’ arguably gives more prominence to universities. Its vision for universities’ role in place-making is stronger in their rhetoric than in current government policy. Universities are named directly throughout, from an early reference to supporting the UK’s ‘tech, life sciences, and…cultural industries’ (p4). But there is a similar gap in understanding the distinctive role that a university could play in a region. Labour’s document proposes a more dynamic relationship between state and market – and universities, we argue, sit between the two, while offering something that neither can alone. The academic ethos is rooted in the intrinsic value of knowledge: scientific, social and humanistic. This cannot be replicated by the state and it cannot be incentivised by markets alone. Academia can help mediate state-market tensions, but at a fundamental level its role is to generate new ideas, techniques and perspectives, all of which can be valuable to policymakers. 

Indeed, the very thing – academic freedom – that makes universities so hard to direct for a regional economic policy is the same thing that creates the possibility of generating unforeseen benefits and advances in knowledge that lead to economic opportunity. Policymakers cannot therefore always promise in advance what the benefits of investing in universities might be, but the counterfactual is that without that investment, entirely new sources of regional excellence are less likely to materialise.

The quasi-marketisation of higher education has contributed to the hollowing out of regions, because universities in those places must compete globally for the applications of high-fee-paying international students and talented staff. Universities are not appropriately funded to address the needs of their regions, and so must find creative ways to deliver the very civic purpose for which they were typically founded. 

Next, we present examples from UEA, to show how regional benefit has happened organically and where the barriers lie. Finally, we propose the introduction of infrastructure funds to universities, to close the gap between their potential and realised regional benefits. 

The case of UEA: of the region; for the world.  Of the world; for the region 

The East of England is strategically important. It generates a third of the UK’s clean energy, and is an ‘integrated energy exemplar’, supplying much of the UK’s gas, and home to significant current (and proposed future) nuclear powerplants. The region grows more than a quarter of the UK’s key food products, such as potatoes, wheat and field vegetables, and it is home to a high concentration of defence infrastructure. It may not have the economic density in GDP terms of the South East, but its vital importance to the wider life of the country is not in doubt. 

The University of East Anglia was established to meet local and regional demand for higher learning, research and innovation. It is now hard to imagine Norfolk without UEA, so intrinsic is it to the prosperity of the region. 

The university was established in 1963, through a local campaign based on a vision of a modern university in Norwich. Significant funds were raised from across Norfolk and Suffolk. This regional mobilisation has continued into the present day, where grassroots engagement in university life was most recently activated for our 60th-anniversary UAE Civic Charter. The Charter is an inclusive, democratic document produced using participatory methods in response to the call for universities to produce Civic University Agreements, following the recommendations of the Civic University Commission chaired by Bob Kerslake. 

This deep regional engagement has continued to shape the development of the university. The Norwich Medical School was founded in 2002, following a campaign started in the 1980s, aiming to transform regional healthcare. UEA continues to advocate and lobby for better regional healthcare research and training, developing innovative new medical degrees and leading a campaign to establish a new School of Dentistry. Other initiatives closely align with regional health and social care needs and will address critical skills gaps. UEA has developed research centres to address specific regional health challenges with global significance. The Norwich Institute for Healthy Ageing focuses on disease prevention, nutrition and lifestyle to maintain healthy life expectancy – important in a region skewed towards older people and with rural and coastal areas with high levels of deprivation. The Norfolk Initiative for Coastal and Rural Health Equalities supports the regional workforce in health and social care by identifying and scaling up service improvements, and then disseminating findings nationally. 

UEA is also home to globally important work in climate research and environmental science. In one of the areas of the UK most vulnerable to its impacts, the climate emergency is not an abstract concept but can be mapped directly on to Norfolk’s coastline, farmland and waterways. World-leading expertise is concentrated in the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and the Climatic Research Unit, because the expertise has agglomerated where local challenges align with the global data that UEA’s researchers generate and analyse. 

And this expertise is applied locally. North Norfolk has a stretch of coastline notoriously vulnerable to flooding and coastal erosion, which is only getting worse. A novel soft engineering adaptation scheme, called sandscaping, was undertaken in the UK for the first time at Bacton village, with the expectation that it would provide 15-20 years’ protection. Bacton was chosen for this unique approach, as the hard engineering along the coast (such as concrete walls) has failed or is failing, and replacement is too costly and causes knock-on negative effects further down the coast. In terms of the national significance of this area, it is the home of the Bacton Gas Terminal, a processing plant supplying up to a third of the UK’s gas supply. UEA’s sandscaping research projects focus on the implications of coastal change on local communities, and are dependent on decades of relationship building and trust between regional and local stakeholders.

Regional benefit is not limited to regional issues. Universities develop expertise over decades that define the places they are in, as exemplified by the impact of creative writing on Norwich. Founded in 1970, the creative-writing courses at UEA have transformed the teaching of creative writing worldwide. The university’s ability to attract world-famous authors to teach, as well as the success of alumni, has shaped the character of Norwich, which was the first city in England to become a UNESCO World City of Literature. It is now home to the National Centre for Writing and the British Centre for Literary Translation. Literary significance shapes the environment of the city, from plaques recognising key figures in English literature – such as Julian of Norwich, the earliest named woman writing in English – to exhibitions in Norwich Castle Museum celebrating the 12th-century English-Jewish poet Meir, to a trail of benches across the city celebrating the literary works associated with the city. That history was always there, but its significance has been elevated by UEA developing a world-leading reputation strongly connected to its local and regional context.

Barriers and challenges to acting in the regional interest

These examples demonstrate how UEA benefits its region. But there are barriers to acting more strategically in the regional interest, which sit at a nexus of internal cultural norms, sector-wide measures of excellence and funding regimes. Although locally focused activity can go on to have global impacts, that is not necessarily always the case. When making research investments, it is easier to see how work with an international focus will meet research assessment criteria, such as the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Locally orientated projects therefore often proceed more slowly than internationally significant research that brings faster academic promotion and career advancement. Overall, the outcome is the prioritisation of universal over local themes, and issues in other countries over issues in the UK – let alone local issues. 

These metrics and the rankings of universities matter. For a non-Russell Group institution, UEA punches above its weight – it is ranked in the top 50 in the world in terms of citations and among the top 20 in the REF. Rankings are critical for attracting international students, and are prioritised by the university and its staff. International students enrich and bring much-needed cultural diversity to a relatively homogenous region. UEA’s international success is a driver of economic prosperity in East Anglia and a source of great local pride. However, without a balance of regional focus and regionally focused metrics and measures of excellence, the international can take precedence over local needs and challenges. 

A different problem exists around funding horizons and researcher location. Places like Norfolk and Suffolk are characterised by relatively stable, tightly networked communities with known leaders across different sectors and strong social ties. This sociology produces both benefits in research and innovation terms and particular challenges. Trust, while slow to build, is a strong currency, and once established enables effective relationships for research, innovation and skills. Yet it can be easily squandered by short-termism in funding practices and projects. Researchers often go into communities to collect their data and then leave, with little or no follow up with their research participants when the funded project ends. This has been exacerbated in coastal towns, where levelling-up and place-based policy and funding were targeted. Academics from across the UK focused their research on towns like Great Yarmouth and Kings Lynn, without necessarily having a personal or longer-term investment in these places or the wider region. This more extractive approach erodes trust and diminishes the perceived value of contributing to academic-led research, making it harder for projects that are more locally embedded – with more inclusive participatory and civic-oriented approaches, and with longer time frames and tangible benefits – to be accepted and embraced by local communities and other regional partners.  

Universities as regional infrastructure

These problems at the intersection of funding regimes, government policy and academic career hierarchies are structural. Many could be resolved if universities were considered by policymakers as regional infrastructure. What do we mean by that, and why is that a solution?

As noted in the white paper and Labour’s ‘A Business Model’, the principal mistakes of levelling-up programmes have been to target funding at places with tight deadlines and pressure to spend funding quickly, with consequential challenges for implementation. If a share of that funding had been allocated directly to universities with a clear mandate for meeting the needs of their regions as universities and with a longer-term time frame, then that could have been a sound investment to deliver on the policy aim of addressing unequal regional development. 

That needs unpacking, because to act as regional infrastructure is something universities appear to do intrinsically, as economic anchor institutions, by providing training and expertise locally, by giving a home to an intellectual community and by raising local aspirations. But to act as universities while being funded as infrastructure means something different again. It does not involve replacing local government in the void left by its steady loss of funding and autonomy. Nor is it about replacing the functions of the local third sector either, such as citizens’ advice or community organisations. Nor does it mean supplanting private-sector investment for developing new products or competing with them in service provision. Instead, it means that universities would be funded to use their considerable power to be issue-focused, creative in delivery, and a regional convening force to tackle emergent challenges and opportunities. Universities should approach their regions with curiosity, not with a ‘fixing’ mindset: what are the underlying causes of a problem, what are the unexplored opportunities here, and how can we best use our expertise to provide tangible impact to support better outcomes? 

Accountability under these circumstances matters. Universities already have strong accountability, impact assessment, ethical oversight and resource allocation mechanisms in place. Following UPP’s report ‘Truly Civic: Strengthening the connection between universities and their places’, we have an aspiration to what this activity should look like if strategically funded – a genuine third pillar to sit alongside teaching and research – and a mechanism for setting priorities, in collaboration with regional partners through CUAs. If universities are to continue to create new departments, disciplines and research centres to address emerging issues, challenges and opportunities, and to continue to work with regional and international communities, then the funding needs to be longer-term. And progress must be measured according to co-created and more regionally focused definitions of excellence and success, using CUAs as a platform to do this. 

And where should this money come from? The UK Infrastructure Bank could offer bonds written off if certain key targets were met, agreed by the bank and regional stakeholders. Overall accountability could be made public through annexes made to CUAs tied to those bonds. 

At UEA, the possibilities of such funding would open many doors. We could invest long term in building our engineering expertise to better support the local offshore economy; we could continue to develop cutting-edge healthcare. And in collaboration with Norwich Research Park partners, we could deepen our engagement with questions of advanced agriculture and food security. We could work with the Norfolk Museum Service, Norwich University of the Arts and local government areas to develop the region’s heritage tourism offer, building on our wealth of expertise across the humanities. 

UEA’s contributions would be made – easily, with the right investment – across the whole economy of the region, reaching into currently poorly served communities. There is deep and unrealised value in universities, but there is a reticence across the sector about asking for more resource. Perhaps that is right, given the wider economic and political conditions. The sector could offer so much more to regional economic development if the right incentives, funding and accountability structures were put in place. But if we do not even make the case for greater investment, then policymakers – and the country as a whole – will be missing out on a significant opportunity.

Dr Benjamin Little and Dr Johanna Forster and Professor Fiona Lettice

Estimated Read time: 14 Mins

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