The role of universities in remaking towns post-Brexit

Professor Roger Lewis, YU Associate 

Remaking British towns after Brexit: key actions for policy makers and planners, published by the Carnegie UK Trust is a timely contribution to discussions surrounding the opportunities and challenges facing the UK post-Brexit.

Two-fifths of Britain’s population live in towns but this spatial dimension has tended to be neglected by policy-makers; cities get much more attention (and investment). Discontented, ‘left-behind’ towns overall voted for Brexit –the benefits of EU membership have not been perceived by all communities.

The Carnegie Trust report argues that feelings of neglect are nothing new; ‘prolonged deprivation’ has arisen from the consequences of long-term structural economic and industrial change, and successive government’s ‘inability to manage’ the town dimension – and  there don’t seem to be many indications that this is changing (for example statements about the UK Shared Prosperity Fund make little mention of the town as a unit).  Paradoxically, the towns that voted Brexit may experience adverse consequences arising from their decision. The report suggests that now is the opportunity to redress the neglect and give towns a new role within public policy. It mentions (admittedly somewhat vaguely) the need for ‘well developed capacities in the private, public and non-profit sectors…to foster local leadership and design and lead change’.

Presumably universities, as key anchor institutions, fit in here somewhere but references to the sector are brief and infrequent. Section 8 promises a discussion of ‘HE and the public sector’ – and it is rightly said that the public sector has been neglected in discussions of Brexit (some of these towns are overwhelmingly dependent on the public sector as an employer). But this promise is not fully realised (for HE). The heading is itself ambiguous – is HE part of the public sector, slightly to one side of it, or in fact more private than public? The report contains some brief references to the potentially negative impact of Brexit on university staff and student flows and on research funding (and mentions the consequent likely impact on the towns in which the universities are based). But little is said of the wider role universities have in helping the UK build and sustain more resilient communities in towns.

When the Brexit vote was announced HE held up its collective hands in disbelief (showing, some would argue, its lack of contact with the world beyond the ‘ivory tower’). And subsequently, the sector has characteristically been much better at analysing the downsides of that decision rather than suggesting– within the understandable limitations and uncertainty of a post-Brexit world – what the most constructive outcomes might be, and how these might be achieved.

Although the report doesn’t use the phrase ‘anchor institution’, that is presumably what the authors are appealing to: the ways in which certain local institutions (including councils, education providers, health providers) can work together in partnership to respond to new and emergent economic and social realities. Such institutions have a critical role beyond their immediate contributions; a role in maintaining local cohesion.

The HE sector is of course diverse in the contributions it makes in this space. Yorkshire Universities exists to coordinate these strengths, and to encourage universities of all shapes and sizes to work together to achieve maximum impact. All institutions can point towards the transformative effect within towns of university buildings and other physical resources.

But more is being asked of universities in terms of widening and deepening their engagement with other actors and agencies in working actively towards supporting the long-term growth and development of towns. This requires universities to reflect upon their roles, individually and collaboratively, and to strengthen their partnerships with other town partners. This presents the best opportunity in which to ‘remake’ towns, and to ensure their contribution towards building a more productive and prosperous post-Brexit UK is realised.

  • Share this post: