The role of universities in revitalising the north


N8 Research Partnership Director Dr Annette Bramley attended a roundtable event recently, with Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and a selection of academic leaders, funders and policy-makers, discussing the role of universities in revitalising neglected areas in the north of England and Midlands.

Here are Annette’s thoughts and seven key takeaways from the session, which was featured in last week’s Guardian.

1. The importance of universities

There was a strong consensus around the table on universities’ importance to the region, but also recognising that universities can’t do it all, or do it on their own. Universities are anchor institutions which spend locally and provide employment for many people from the city regions.  They don’t just benefit their cities and there is a real need for universities to reach out to places that are not part of the city regions and connected economy.  To support medium sized towns better we need to rise to this challenge and recognise future trends in education, work and living. 

 Our 2016 Power of 8 report details how the N8 institutions, as major economic enterprises, generate revenue and economic activity across the Northern Powerhouse, as well as generating significant employment both on and off campus,  and attracting investment to the whole region. Take a look:

2. The strength of the north

We all recognised that the Northern Powerhouse has a range of different types of universities, and that the concentration and our diversity of our universities within a relatively small geographical area is a huge strength. Henri Murison also underlined that our universities have different capabilities and that the collaborations between universities and with combined authorities and local councils are well established now in the Northern Powerhouse.

3. Collaborative innovation ecosystem

For effective innovation which delivers benefits to the Northern Powerhouse and beyond, our universities need to work in partnership with each other and other stakeholders, like business and the public sector. The N8 Research Partnership is, of course, a prime example of strong collaborative university relationships. N8 also has a strong track record of close business partnership to drive innovation. For example, the N8-founded regenerative medicine project, Regener8, has delivered innovation with dozens of SMEs and N8 helped establish the Liverpool Open Innovation Hub for Anti-Microbial surfaces as a contact point for business innovation. Professor Rasmita Raval, who was awarded the 2019 Business of Science Leadership Award for this initiative on May 15th, has acknowledged the key role that N8 seedcorn funding played in establishing what is now a multi-million pound centre bringing together academics and business.

4. Education and Skills

There was strong support from around the table for investment in skills so that the region’s businesses can absorb new innovation and be more productive. Henri Murison said that higher level apprenticeships increase productivity in the region and increase the skills available to business. The target set by government for R&D funding in the UK will require the creation of four new GSKs, four new Rolls Royces, four new Oxford Universities and making Manchester and Birmingham as R&D intensive as the South East of England by 2027. The universities minister, Chris Skidmore said recently that more than 260,000 highly skilled jobs would be created as a result.  Further employment will be created in the supply chain and in business at all levels.  The Northern Powerhouse has the ability to capitalise on this opportunity, the capacity to take this investment and use it to drive productivity growth, sustainably.

 The boundaries between Further Education and Higher Education will be increasingly blurred in these places – adding HE validated courses into FE in these towns for example, as in Scarborough is one possible solution, combined with the expected increase in distance and blended learning.  Access to adult learning and through life learning provision will be needed at all levels, to increase access and aspiration and to manage the impacts of the 4th Industrial Revolution.  

5. Industrial strategy

We discussed how universities can engage with the Industrial Strategy, with Luke Georghiou, Deputy President and Deputy VC at University of Manchester, offering the Graphene Institute and Henry Royce Institute Hub as examples of this. Sir Richard Leese stated that skills driven economic growth and universities are an important part of delivering Manchester’s local industrial strategy. 

6. Quality of life

A key factor sitting alongside employment opportunities is the quality of life – are these locations across the north places where people with high level of skills and talent want to live? Is there a cultural offer? Is there access to green and blue spaces?

The Eden North project in Morecambe represents a great example of how this could be done – providing research and innovation opportunities for universities, providing jobs in the real economy, acting as a venue for other leisure and cultural events/businesses, boosting tourism and attracting people to the region permanently.

7. Improving connectivity to reduce ‘brain drain’

Families looking to put down roots often have more than one working parent; and so density of career opportunities for highly skilled individuals is a key factor. This is often known as the ‘two-body problem’.  More highly skilled jobs in the Northern Powerhouse and better transport links across the North would better enable people to access a broader range of employment opportunities and therefore more assurance about their future prospects and opportunities within the region. Connectivity is also important for all of us to be able to access the range of cultural, retail and sporting opportunities, and access natural environments and the coastline and it would be more sustainable for the environment and make our towns and cities healthier places to live in, if we could be less dependent on cars. 

 There will always be graduates moving to different parts of the country, because young people want to experience different lifestyles and places at a point in their lives when they have a lot of flexibility in where they can live. What we need is for the Northern Powerhouse to be a place where people of all ages want to come to from other places, bringing their expertise, knowledge and creativity with them; less ‘brain drain’ and more ‘brain exchange’.