Universities ‘central’ to solutions on UK regional inequality

Lord Kerslake, chair of UK2070 Commission, calls for ‘MIT of the North’ and ‘HE-FE systems’ in deprived towns

November 15, 2019

Universities could play a central role in addressing the UK’s dire levels of regional inequality, potentially through creating an “MIT of the North” or establishing “HE-FE systems” in deprived towns, according to the former head of the nation’s Civil Service.

Lord Kerslake, chair of the UK2070 Commission on regional inequality, told Times Higher Education that “universities have been central to [the commission’s work], both in the analysis and being part of the solution as well”.

The commission – which has delivered two reports this year and will deliver its final report in January 2020 – was established by a partnership between the US Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the universities of Manchester and Sheffield, and UCL.

It has an influential chair in Lord Kerslake, a crossbench peer who is advising the Labour Party on its “preparations for government”, chaired the recent Civic University Commission and is chair of governors at Sheffield Hallam University.

The commission has published research by Philip McCann, chair in urban and regional economics at the University of Sheffield, that ranked the UK 28th of 30 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries on interregional inequality.

In its second report, the commission looked at policies on devolution that might “shift the dial” and advocated a “conscious government policy to rebalance, in the way that West and East Germany had” after reunification, said Lord Kerslake.

Its recommendations also include the creation of an “MIT of the North” in which universities would be “pivotal”, he added.

The commission published a paper on the concept that argued that “despite having strong universities”, UK regions beyond the London-Oxford-Cambridge “golden triangle” have “yet to build an innovation-led-economy with sufficient strength, coherence and critical mass”. That piece called for the north to consider the model of the Greater Boston innovation economy, anchored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lord Kerslake highlighted the big increase in research spending being promised by both the Conservatives and Labour, saying “we have to try and shape that [investment] towards a more distributed model”, with funding spread across the regions.

But he also said that in boosting local economies “it’s got to be about Grimsby as well as graphene”, adding that “we do think universities have an important role in the addressing of the so-called ‘left behind’ towns”.

That could mean universities “having a presence” in smaller towns, potentially via collaborations with further education colleges, Lord Kerslake said. Universities have “got to think about HE-FE systems”, he argued.

Or, he suggested, this could involve models like Sheffield Hallam’s South Yorkshire Futures, which aims to raise school attainment across Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield.

The UK has “chronically low investment and we have chronically low productivity…and one part of that is the underperformance [of the regions] outside of London and the south east”, Lord Kerslake warned.

Asked if the final report would make a recommendation about the right form of regional government for England, Lord Kerslake joked that “as soon as we start drawing lines on a map, everybody gets very agitated”. However, he said the commission would address “the principles by which you would design a regional government”.

While many affluent areas of the south east backed Leave in the European Union referendum, many deindustrialised towns in the North also voted to “take back control” from a perceived remote political elite. So why has English devolution not figured more prominently in political debate following the referendum?

“Everything has been blotted out by Brexit; it’s a paradoxical point,” replied Lord Kerslake. “Thinking time has been squeezed out…all three parties have found it really hard to find the space for creative policy thinking on other issues.”


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Reader's comments (2)

Lord Kerslake — yet another pointless Labour cretin who doesn't think England deserves its own national parliament.
I would agree with Lord Kerslake in the regenerational impact Universities can have on a location and would support moves to establish high quality institutions in the North rather than seeing a further proliferation of northern University "offshoots" establishing a London campus. There is also a need for more joint working beween the HE and FE sectors to make access to University courses closer to home and the creation of a Government backed "swap home" scheme to allow students in one town or city to "swap" accommodation with a student in a different location to keep the cost of attending University down and making the best use of existing housing.