HuaweiResearch and regional inequality: how the levelling-up agenda could impact the south of England

Research and regional inequality: how the levelling-up agenda could impact the south of England

With the levelling-up agenda a hot topic in policymaking circles, how can higher education spread the impact of its research activities equally across the UK?

With the UK government expected to publish its Levelling Up White Paper later in the year, there is a growing expectation that universities should pursue place-based research and development strategies to stimulate economic activity and reduce regional inequality.

At a round table hosted by Times Higher Education in partnership with Huawei, higher education leaders gathered to discuss how their R&D strategies and collaborations with industry partners could help tackle such issues in the south of England. University-industry collaboration will play a vital role in the country’s post-Covid economic recovery, but is it possible to geographically redistribute the economic benefits of science and innovation?

Grace Gottlieb, head of policy research at UCL, said that efforts to promote regional R&D are being complicated by uncertainty. R&D inequality is not just an issue between regions; there are inequalities within regions too. The government needed to properly define its ambitions.

“The purpose of regional R&D investment needs greater clarity,” Gottlieb said. “Attempts to promote regional R&D haven’t been very successful in the past.” Gottlieb cited the findings of a report she co-authored, published by UCL and the Higher Education Policy Institute.

The report presented a list of policy recommendations that called for measurable outcomes, a focus on impact, partnerships within and between regions, and civic authorities with the administrative power to lead regional R&D initiatives within a national framework. She argued that the UK should adopt a model that integrated regional, national and global interests, while also offering a sustainable funding model.

Steve West, vice-chancellor, president and chief executive officer of the University of the West of England, Bristol, was not alone in voicing concern about the trade-offs between research ambitions and teaching.

There was a growing imperative for full economic costing, and higher education had to make the case to government, business and society that universities have a role to play in levelling up. “It cannot be seen as universities trying to grab more resources without indicating how that is paid back,” he said.

With the government defining regions by ever-smaller geographic configurations, West warned that a funding model that flowed through combined authority areas, unitary authorities and local enterprise partnerships could create “a real muddle”.

Anne Carlisle, vice-chancellor and chief executive of Falmouth University, said that Cornwall needed to attract inward investment to grow a sector from the ground up, and noted that different regions might require radically different approaches.

“This is something I talk to politicians a lot about when they come to Cornwall,” she said. “We are growing a sector here in digital that doesn’t exist. We are not investing in existing skills sectors here because they will not transform this region economically. I believe we have proof of concept that you can bring millions into a region if you are actually collaborating with global industry to build rising sectors.”

Philip Candice, deputy director of public and industry affairs at Huawei, highlighted the importance of an open dialogue between universities and industry. "The more conversations like this are organised between businesses and universities the better, because that allows businesses to better understand the visions that individual higher education institutions or regional development bodies have for their region and their cities," Candice said.

The panel cautioned against short-term thinking and forcing universities to consider only the local impact. Reconciling the tension between teaching and research, local and national interests, short- and long-term impact lies at the heat of the levelling-up conundrum. The UK’s research sector needed time to absorb funds and allocate them effectively.

Furthermore, distributing research funding by location did not guarantee that impact would follow. “At Imperial, we help other regions through collaboration, so it is not just about putting money into London creating money for London,” said Angela Kingman, head of funding strategy at Imperial College London. “It creates impact elsewhere. We have created an impact map which tries to show where we receive funding and where we are contributing to other regions. That is the approach we should be taking.”

The panel:

  • Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer, Times Higher Eduction (chair)
  • Philip Candice, deputy director of public and industry affairs, Huawei
  • Anne Carlisle, vice-chancellor and chief executive, Falmouth University
  • Grace Gottlieb, head of policy research, UCL
  • Matthew Jackson, head of academic relations, Huawei
  • Keith Jones, pro vice-chancellor of research, University of Sussex
  • Andrew Massoura, director of research and innovation support and governance, the University of Kent
  • Mustafa Rampuri, director of enterprise services, University of Bristol
  • Lisa Roberts, vice-chancellor and chief executive, University of Exeter
  • Steve West, vice-chancellor, president and chief executive officer, the University of the West of England, Bristol
  • Dominik Zaum, pro vice-chancellor of research and innovation, University of Reading

Find out more about Huawei and higher education.

Brought to you by