Levelling up: show us the money, ministers told

Universities told to make sure whole of government follows through on promised levelling up investments

May 26, 2022
Flats on the Park Hill Estate, Sheffield
Source: iStock

UK universities must take care that the Treasury follows through on the promises of the levelling up White Paper, the director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership has said.

Speaking at the UK Academic Salon, organised by Times Higher Education, Henri Murison said February’s White Paper, which promised public research investment outside the south-east would grow by 40 per cent by 2030, “isn’t necessarily the last word on what government policy will be”. 

“We need to see Treasury actually spending the money they’ve committed to spend, and spending it in the way they’ll promise they’ll spend it,” said Mr Murison, whose partnership represents businesses with northern interests.

Mr Murison said UK science minister George Freeman was “absolutely on the right track” when it came to following through on the paper, but there were “worrying signs” about the commitment from other departments.

“What we don’t necessarily see is the same level of support across government and we absolutely need to keep the Treasury engaged in the detail of this policy area in order [for it] to understand what it can do for them, which is to close that north-south divide,” he said.

Mr Murison pointed to recent broken promises, like the failure of the Shared Prosperity Fund to plug a hole left by lost European Union funding, as a reason to keep the Treasury on task.

Policy experts were unimpressed by the “revolution” in regional investment the White Paper was supposed to bring, with James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, pointing out that achieving its target of directing 55 per cent of research and development outside the south-east of England would only shift north-south spending ratios by 1 per cent by 2025.

Mr Murison said that the research and development gap with the south-east’s “golden triangle” was “largely driven by the public sector”.

As well as R&D investment generally, the north has been “underpowered” for translational and commercialisation work, although the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) was an exception to that, he said.

Mr Murison said universities should look to diversify through translational centres like the AMRC and predicted a “great expansion” in government spending on translational work, as officials would “struggle to find much more to fund in pure research” at top universities.

“They’re going to have to fund translational activity, that is where most of the spending is going to need to go,” he said.


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