Universities must address regional inequalities with humility and collaboration

Working with actors in “left-behind” communities and recognising expertise beyond their walls will help close knowledge gaps on economic divisions, say Siobhan Morris, Olivia Stevenson and John Tomaney 

February 29, 2020
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The political salience of regional inequalities has risen rapidly in the context of the UK’s December general election, the overall outcome of which rested decisively on the political realignment of voters in so-called “left-behind” places.

While divisions have become more prominent in recent years, concentrated and multiple forms of deprivation have accumulated over decades – even generations. Improving conditions in these areas requires finely tuned and well-evidenced policy approaches – with universities playing a key role.

The UK is a fundamentally unequal country, with geography presenting itself as one of the main axes of division. Across the country, high levels of inequality are underpinned by marked place-specific differences in educational attainment, employment prospects, health and well-being.

Put simply, the place where an individual grows up remains a key determinant in dictating the opportunities, choices and mobility accessible to them throughout their lives.

In the latest jargon, the UK government is committed to “levelling up” the country – yet questions have inevitably arisen surrounding how exactly this is defined, measured and administered.

So far, the new agenda incorporates a heavy emphasis on infrastructure (such as new roads and railways, like HS2), deregulation (freeports, relaxation of planning laws) or shifting investment in public R&D; although this is framed in terms of how it contributes to the UK’s international competitiveness.

Detail is lacking and much of what has been proposed to date looks like modest twists on old ways of doing things or is poorly directed at the key problems. It is not clear, for instance, how freeports will improve social conditions in places with low skill levels, inadequate public transport or ageing populations.

To ensure place-specific inequalities are tackled (as well as the emerging social and political divisions across the UK), universities – particularly those within the “golden triangle” of London, Cambridge and Oxford – need to play a key role in addressing gaps in knowledge regarding the nature of inequalities, which are complex, multifaceted and often stubbornly entrenched in social structures. We need a richer understanding of the intersecting nature and multiplicity of inequalities and the trajectories of disadvantaged places, as well as the needs and aspirations, challenges and opportunities in particular disadvantaged areas.

An effective way of achieving this is through more and improved interregional collaborations with a range of universities and other actors in such places. These should include employers, GPs, schools, housing associations and the many small and often invisible civic and voluntary bodies that play a critical role in stressed lives.

While a great deal of knowledge relevant to tackling the education, health, transport and demographic challenges we face can be found in universities, the challenge remains making this knowledge accessible to those places where it can be productively used to generate social and economic impact for those experiencing inequalities.

This is no small task – and requires long-term and deep engagements in places that have been traditionally overlooked, as well as an ability to listen differently to those with lived experience of the issues.

Universities – both as bodies of researchers and corporate entities – can’t be certain of all the issues, let alone have all the answers; many are likely to be found among residents – yet they are rarely asked for their knowledge or experience. In this respect, collaboration must be a two-way process, where powerful institutions seek to contribute with humility, if they are to deliver societal outcomes that lead to genuine levelling up and recognise that the expertise of those in “left-behind” places is equally as valid, if not more so, than the expertise housed within their walls. This certainly poses challenges for universities, but it is a challenge that must be met.

Siobhan Morris is coordinator of UCL’s Grand Challenge of Justice & Equality and author of Structurally Unsound: Exploring Inequalities igniting research to better inform UK policy. 

Olivia Stevenson is head of UCL public policy, co-founder of the Universities Policy Engagement Network and author of Structurally Unsound.

John Tomaney is a professor of urban and regional planning at the UCL Bartlett School of Planning. He is a member of the UK2070 Commission.

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