Skidmore: ‘MIT of the North’ is ‘already staring us in the face’

Universities minister says north-south divide cannot be solved ‘in a top-down way, driven by central government diktat’

January 24, 2020
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The UK’s universities minister has appeared to distance himself from the idea of creating an entirely new “MIT of the North”, claiming that there is “no room for a false north-versus-south narrative” and that he wants to support existing institutions.

Chris Skidmore said the government would deliver on its promise to double the research and development budget by “empowering existing institutions” in all parts of the UK and “strengthening their collaborations”.

“We must recognise that the so-called MIT for the North is already staring us in the face,” he said.

“It is right here in Durham, but also in Manchester, in Liverpool, in Newcastle, in Leeds, in Sheffield, Lancaster and York. It is in Sunderland and Hull, in Bradford and Salford – a constellation across the north that is already shining brightly.”

Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse minister, spoke last month about a goal to create a new “world-leading institution in the north to rival Oxford and Cambridge”, modelled on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with Leeds mooted as a potential location.

In a speech delivered in Durham on 24 January on the government’s future priorities for science, research and innovation, Mr Skidmore said it was “no secret” that there were “widening gaps between north and south”, but added that this could not be solved “in a top-down way, driven by central government diktat”.

“I am determined to support existing institutions, right across the country, to work with you to foster and build networks…We are already seeing these collaborations flourish, not just within the north but the north working with the south, and the east with the west,” he said.

He later added that clusters of excellence “only emerge thanks to a critical mass…that can best be forged by existing institutions”.

Referring to the dominance in research of leading institutions in Oxford, Cambridge and London, Mr Skidmore also said that the “golden triangle narrative is profoundly an unhelpful one” because “researchers themselves have always been good at collaborating across the country”.

“There is simply no room for a false north-versus-south narrative that cuts against the grain of what is working at the moment – the principle of subsidiarity, which we need to continue to foster,” he said, adding that the UK needed to put in place “a true ‘one nation’ R&D strategy to complement, and ultimately fulfil” its commitment to spend 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product on research and development by 2027.

However, Mr Skidmore also presented new data, which he had commissioned from UK Research and Innovation, revealing the disparity in research funding levels across the country.

The figures showed that 52 per cent of the UK’s public investment into research and development in 2017-18 went to London, the south east and the east of England regions.

Meanwhile, London universities were awarded more than £10,000 per researcher in quality-related research funds, about double the equivalent figure for the West Midlands or the north west.

“Now that we are increasing public investment into R&D, we have a chance to address these disparities, and I want us to seize it. We must ensure that more public R&D funding is being driven to places where, despite historic underinvestment from the state, private investment has been flowing freely, and where it is ready to flow even faster,” Mr Skidmore said.

However, he added, he would continue to invest in “research excellence, and in our world-leading research capabilities”.

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