Plan to expand Sheffield’s AMRC into ‘MIT’ put to ministers

Proposal aims to ‘propel the regeneration of manufacturing in the North and Scotland’, but Sheffield pushes back against calls to make centre independent

March 5, 2020
Source: iStock

Plans to “propel the regeneration of manufacturing in the North [of England] and Scotland” by massively scaling up the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre have been presented to the UK government – but calls to make the AMRC independent are being resisted by the university.

A document titled “Powering the North – Manufacturing Institute of Technology (MIT)”, proposing to “extend the success” of the AMRC and calling for funding of £750 million over seven years, has been drawn up by northern leaders with input from regional universities and has been seen by ministers and officials, as they consider how to achieve the government’s key priority of “levelling up” the UK regions.

The document, seen by Times Higher Education, proposes that the universities of Manchester and Strathclyde “hold the assets and provide management services to underpin MIT”.

Although the proposal does not directly tackle the status of the AMRC in relation to Sheffield, there have been separate calls for the AMRC to be hived off from the university and made into an independent entity, giving it more freedom to expand.

However, Sheffield has its own plans to retain ownership of the AMRC and to expand it – and the university, too, has submitted those to the government.

The AMRC, which conducts research and development on advanced machining, manufacturing and materials, has attracted Boeing and McLaren to open new factories at its site on the Sheffield-Rotherham boundary.

The plan to scale up the AMRC, which is part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, aims to create 10 to 15 more such facilities and to replicate its success in Rotherham, driving forward the government’s agenda to boost the economies of towns.

Key figures in government, including Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s most senior adviser, are said to be admirers of the AMRC and to see the potential for its model to help rebuild the manufacturing base in the regions.

Those with knowledge of the “Powering the North” proposal, presented to the government before the December general election, suggest that discussions have taken place about whether an independent AMRC could be overseen by a “superstructure” involving a network of northern universities along with, potentially, northern metro mayors.

A Catapult source said that “if substantial investment is to be made in the ‘D’ side of the R&D equation, the urgent question for government is whether the existing northern university network is really the best delivery mechanism for levelling up.

“Government is now looking at whether a turbocharged Catapult for the north, freed from university ownership and based on the incredible transformational achievements of the AMRC across the north, will better deliver [its] ambitious goal of creating a more balanced economy that reaches the parts of the UK that metropolitan universities fail to touch.”

The proposal is separate from the call by former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry for the creation of a single “MIT of the North” in Leeds, which was immediately rejected by other figures in government.

Keith Ridgway, the founder of the AMRC, made a surprise exit from his post as its executive dean in October. He “chose to leave following a governance review which indicated the AMRC would be more tightly controlled” by the University of Sheffield, the Yorkshire Post reported.

Professor Ridgway, now executive chair of the Advanced Forming Manufacturing Centre at the University of Strathclyde, wrote in a January article for the same newspaper that the AMRC should be made into an independent, pan-regional institution, shifting “its governance into a wider pan-northern university network”.

However, Sheffield management point to the fact that an AMRC Cymru has been launched in partnership with the Welsh government, while an AMRC North West has been launched in Preston.

Koen Lamberts, the Sheffield vice-chancellor, said: “It’s our view we can achieve the regional impact and benefit entirely within the current ownership model, as we’ve demonstrated already in Wales and Lancashire.”

He added: “Given the right level of support from government and industry, there’s no reason we couldn’t expand that model.”

Dave Petley, Sheffield’s vice-president for innovation, said the AMRC was “a two-way translational pipeline from really fundamental research through to applied research”. “It actually makes no sense to say, ‘Let’s take the AMRC and spin it out and create some sort of independent structure,’” he said.

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