Ministers urged to back, not bash, English northern universities

‘MIT of the North’ idea seen as ignoring imbalances in research funding that undermine regions

December 31, 2019
Jake Berry
Source: Getty

The UK government’s ambition to create an entirely new “MIT of the North” has been described as “hackneyed”, as ignoring regional imbalances in research funding and as being based on simplistic misconceptions about “translating research into innovation”.

Comments by Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse minister, about a goal to create a new “world-leading institution in the north to rival Oxford and Cambridge” – with Leeds cited as a potential location, according to The Sunday Times – appear to chime with the science agenda of Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s most senior adviser.

Mr Cummings views universities as having failed to generate sufficient economic benefits from their research, meaning that the government is looking for routes beyond existing institutions through which to channel some of its promised major injection of research funding, some in the sector suggest.

Following a general election victory delivered by traditionally Labour seats in the Midlands and the north, the Conservative government is also seeking to implement high-profile projects benefiting those regions.

There is huge regional imbalance in research funding. In 2017, the south-east, east of England and London regions “together accounted for 52 per cent of total UK [research and development] expenditure (£18.2 billion)”, according to the Office for National Statistics. Meanwhile Yorkshire and the Humber – location of the suggested “MIT of the North” – got just £1.6 billion.

Despite that, the University of Sheffield, for example, has achieved notable success with its Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Rotherham, which has led Boeing and McLaren to open new factories at the site.

A Leeds city region partnership, including the University of Leeds, successfully bid for a place on a MIT innovation programme that supports regions to accelerate growth – and the university and city were chosen to host the next stage of the global programme, starting in January 2020.

The UK2070 Commission on regional inequality has also called for an MIT of the North. Its paper on the subject noted that the north’s universities have “yet to build an innovation-led economy with sufficient strength, coherence and critical mass”, but made a call “to build on the strong base of universities” in the region, advising that tackling “significant regional imbalance” in research funding would be a vital step.

Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, said of Mr Berry’s MIT of the North ambition: “Neither in Boston, nor Silicon Valley, nor in Cambridge [in the UK] is the high-tech activity that we see in those clusters the simple result of the direct ‘translation’ of research results into innovation.”

Rather, the key role of universities in these areas was “anchoring those clusters or ecosystems with their reputation/brand, providing advice and facilities [and] especially through attracting highly skilled and entrepreneurial human capital – researchers and students – to those places”, Dr Flanagan said.

He argued that it “would definitely be infinitely more sensible to look at the funding on offer than to create a new institution which will almost certainly fail in its objectives and be a waste of resources”, and warned against “inappropriate or poorly informed carbon-copying” of MIT.

Dr Flanagan continued: “Funding is ultimately the reason the golden triangle institutions are so strong – it is the result of a deliberate decision taken in the 1980s to concentrate resources in a few places…Now, when public R&D spending is promised to grow rapidly, is the time to review this policy.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, called Mr Berry’s plan “rather hackneyed – seemingly pretty much every government since about Harold Wilson’s day has been promising something similar”.

Politicians “love the big announcements about new institutions but rarely find the really big money that would be necessary to see them through”, said Mr Hillman, noting that MIT has an endowment of $17.4 billion (£13.3 billion).

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘Northern MIT’ idea ‘hackneyed and simplistic’

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