Universities vital to ending shameful neglect of Britain’s regions

UK needs an antidote to London dominance and toxic deindustrialisation, says John Morgan

August 16, 2017
London sunset

This week, I’ve taken an in-depth look at how Sheffield’s two universities are trying to help regenerate their city and regional economy, shattered by the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in steel and mining over decades of deindustrialisation.

This isn’t parochial stuff. The kind of thing that Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield are trying to do (a post-1992 university and a Russell Group institution working together on a strategy for devolution in their city region, alongside the NHS) matters for the whole of the country.

Britain’s abnormally centralised power structures, privileging the capital above the rest of the country, damage our lives. Inequalities between London and the rest of Britain are the root of some of our biggest political and social problems, not least as one of many ingredients in the primordial soup of resentment from which the Brexit vote emerged.

London-regional inequalities also feed through into people’s health. A group of researchers from institutions including the universities of Manchester and York recently found that while rates of premature death are declining in the south of England, in the north they have risen “alarmingly among those aged 25-44 since the mid-1990s”. This trend is a “profound and worsening structural inequality,” the authors said.

With local authorities denuded by years of austerity and the NHS weakened by underfunding, universities will be key institutions in challenging these regional inequalities. If the economic balance is going to shift away from London towards the UK regions, away from financial services towards manufacturing, universities must lead the way on skills and productivity in the regions.

The University of Sheffield is trying to do just that at its Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, which applies university research expertise in advanced materials to boost productivity for local SMEs as well as big companies such as Boeing. Not only is the AMRC bringing new jobs to the region by attracting Boeing and McLaren to open factories at the site – at Orgreave, where British mass industrial employment breathed its last during the miners’ strike – but Sheffield is preparing apprentices for work in local manufacturers at the AMRC training centre.

Plenty of British universities have had strong civic roles throughout their histories, of course. But there is still scope to push that to the forefront of their missions, for different types of universities to collaborate within their regions, and for universities to think about themselves as anchor institutions in new ways.

My article on Sheffield forms a pair on the civic role of universities, alongside a piece I wrote last year after visiting Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania. Hopkins and Penn, two wealthy and world-renowned research universities, have tried to make it integral to their missions to regenerate desperately poor areas of their cities – Baltimore and Philadelphia respectively. Penn (which Sheffield vice-chancellor Keith Burnett has visited to learn about its work as an anchor institution) is the pioneer in civic engagement that Hopkins is trying to emulate and outdo.

There are obviously important differences between the US and UK here: only Cambridge and Oxford among British universities come anywhere close to the endowment wealth of Hopkins and Penn, which limits them in some respects. But British universities could learn from the way that Hopkins is leveraging its status as a major city employer and investor, by setting hard targets for hiring staff from local neighbourhoods and for procurement spending with local companies. Or learn from how Hopkins is trying to use the expertise of its academics to benefit its city: in one project researchers are working with the Baltimore police to develop data-driven strategies on gun crime. On the other hand, the way that Hopkins has alienated many by displacing black families in redeveloping part of East Baltimore is an example to be avoided.

The common theme between Baltimore and Sheffield is how universities can help to address the traumas left by deindustrialisation, a decades-old social problem whose political consequences are only now being properly understood.

Last year, researchers from Sheffield Hallam’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research highlighted the manner in which the government’s outlay on incapacity-related benefits and in-work benefits for the low-paid is focused in former industrial areas. The straightforward argument of the authors, Christina Beatty and Steve Fothergill, was that “the destruction of industrial jobs, which was so marked in the 1980s and early 1990s but has continued on and off ever since, fuelled spending on welfare benefits, which in turn has compounded the budgetary problems of successive governments”.

They outlined two alternatives to addressing the deficit: the government can carry on cutting welfare spending and further punishing those areas hit hardest by deindustrialisation, or the UK could try to be more like Germany and develop a regional economic policy.

One key element here could be the industrial strategy, on which the Conservative government will publish a White Paper later in the year, after a consultation made positive noises about the role of universities and research.

Yet in the meantime, that government keeps taking decisions that fuel London-regional inequalities. Chris Grayling, the transport minister, announced last month that the government was abandoning plans to electrify several regional rail routes – including the Midlands mainline north of Kettering, to Nottingham and Sheffield. Maybe, just maybe, developments such as the AMRC could create more decent jobs in the regions if you didn’t have to crawl along on an antique diesel train to get to them.

The very next week, Grayling announced his support for London’s Crossrail 2 – the sequel to the acclaimed Crossrail 1, a £15 billion project to increase house prices in Maidenhead to which all British taxpayers are contributing. The IPPR North thinktank estimates that as of 2016-17, transport spending will be £1,943 per person in London on current or planned projects, compared with just £427 across the north. The shameful neglect of the UK’s regions, seen in the way that deindustrialisation has been allowed to fester, to the nation’s continuing cost, continues in other ways.

In areas beyond infrastructure spending, government policy is unhelpful for universities in their civic role. REF and England’s TEF encourage the pursuit of national prestige. A completely marketised system counteracts the collaboration between universities needed in the regions if they are to help set the agenda on devolution. There is no status reward or financial support for the institution that recruits students from its region, as Sheffield Hallam does in Rotherham (this is vital for the town, says Sarah Champion, its MP). Brexit will mean the loss of EU Regional Development Funding, a crucial source of support for the AMRC.

While political, financial, media and cultural power is all hoarded in London, higher education remains one of few sectors where institutions outside the capital have clout. Few, if any, institutions in the regions can match universities’ ability to invest and to attract investment.

Britain’s universities can lead the way in shifting power to the regions, if government policy lets them – in terms of infrastructure investment and higher education policy. The prize of a better economy is worth the fight against London’s dominance.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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