Keir Starmer’s trip to his alma mater reflects universities’ regional clout

But institutions will contribute much more to both their localities and their planet if they collaborate more, says Simone Buitendijk

December 10, 2022
Parkinson Building of the University of Leeds, UK
Source: iStock

One of the best parts of being a vice-chancellor is being able to welcome alumni back to campus. As a reminder of the transformative impact that a University of Leeds education has for so many of our students, it’s hard to beat.

That certainly was the case last Monday, when the leader of the UK Labour Party, Keir Starmer, revisited the campus where, as he put it, he “spent three happy years” in the early 1980s. Accompanied by former prime minister Gordon Brown, he had carefully chosen the university as the venue to launch the report of Labour’s Commission on the UK’s Future setting out a radical new vision for overhauling the relationship between the UK’s nations and regions.

While much of the media attention on the day focused on the report’s recommendations relating to Scotland and to the House of Lords, my eye was drawn to the emphasis on the importance of great regional universities: in particular, the critical link between economic success and higher education up and down the country. “The UK has many of the world’s top universities – located across the regions and nations…They must be included in local economic strategies,” reads the report, whose authorial committee was chaired by Brown.

The report calls for a step change in collaboration between universities and the NHS. The city of Leeds is already leading the way in demonstrating the potential of this strategy, with the Leeds Academic Health Partnership and the launch earlier this year of the Leeds Health and Social Care Hub. The University of Leeds is a partner in both.

Much is also made of the role of the new UK Infrastructure Bank, launched last year, in assisting our world-class regional universities to improve the commercialisation of research and the creation of university spin-outs. We have already made great strides here with Nexus, our Innovation Centre, which was purpose-built to facilitate collaboration between entrepreneurs and researchers. That the Labour Party chose Nexus as the location to launch these proposals speaks for itself.

The report correctly states that the UK’s regional universities, while already making a substantial impact on local societies and economies, can do even more if government places collaboration with, and between, universities at the heart of its approach. This chimes with our ethos at the Leeds, which I have championed since becoming vice-chancellor two years ago.

For too long, universities have been funnelled into a situation where more energy is spent on comparing and competing, instead of celebrating joint successes and encouraging intensive collaboration. Given the scale and severity of the challenges facing regions, countries and the planet, there is a shared responsibility on all of us to address that. From the climate emergency to the future functioning of the health service and the way we educate young people, there are issues that can only be solved if we innovate for the future together. 

Government and politicians can also play their part by providing direction and support to the sector. In that regard, I welcome the ambitions for higher education in the Labour Party’s report, but I also want to see both the government and opposition go further on this. I want to see the incredible international links that our regional universities hold being brought to bear on the issues that need input from the best minds across the globe – including those in businesses, public sector and government.

Collaboration isn’t always easy, but it is necessary if we are to build a better society for future generations.

Simone Buitendijk is vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds.

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