A special day celebrating a special place

Dr Peter O’Brien, Executive Director

Today, on 1 August, we celebrate Yorkshire Day.

Yorkshire has one of the richest histories of any region in England. The name ‘Yorkshire’ derives from the word ‘Eborakon’, an old Brythonic name, which means ‘the place of the yew-trees’. During the Roman period, York was the capital of the province of Britannia Inferior.

With an area of 12,000 square kilometres, and larger than Sussex, Surrey and Kent combined, Yorkshire has varied landscapes: mountains; caverns; plains; precipices; chalk downs; valleys and vales; estuaries; marshland; peatbogs and upland heath, which provide the land on which some wonderful cities, rural and coastal settlements have grown. Yorkshire’s two National Parks attract over 20 million visitors per year.

Yorkshire is famous for rebellion and for challenging the status quo. Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, Yorkshire refused to be subjugated and was at the centre of the punitive harrying of the north of England. Yorkshire also proved notable for leading a series of uprisings between 1485 and 1603.

The Yorkshire ‘brand’ is known throughout the world, and is an asset in international trade and investment, and for promoting sectors like tourism, food and culture. In the creative industries, Channel 4’s move to Leeds is expected to be the catalyst for 1,200 new jobs and £1 billion worth of investment. Hull’s Capital of Culture programme in 2017, the Leeds 2023 international culture festival and York’s annual Festival of Ideas have seen universities play a leading role in connecting culture to local communities.

Whilst there have been divergent fortunes for the region’s football clubs – congratulations to Leeds United for returning to the Premier League after 16 years absence, and to Sheffield United on a great return to England’s top flight, but commiserations to Hull City – sport is integral to Yorkshire’s DNA. Just ask anyone interested in cycling – which was given a huge domestic boost when Yorkshire was the start point for the 2014 Tour de France. Or the adage that the England men’s cricket team is much stronger with a player from Yorkshire at the helm – the current captain, Joe Root, is from Sheffield. The region’s press has long commented upon how Yorkshire, if it were an independent country, would have finished 12th in the medal table at the 2012 London Olympics. In 2016, Yorkshire re-affirmed its sporting prowess securing 14th place in the Rio medal table. We look forward to Yorkshire improving on its record at next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

With a population of 5.3 million, the Yorkshire economy is worth £113 billion – twice the size of the economy of Wales. Key sectors include, advanced manufacturing, energy, food, health and care, digital, financial services, and public administration. Despite these assets, Yorkshire faces significant economic challenges, many of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. Yorkshire stood as an outlier – prior to the pandemic – in being the only region in England where real productivity had not returned to its pre-Global Financial Crisis level. As Yorkshire attempts to recover and rebuild from the devastation wreaked by the pandemic, increasing the level of exports and foreign investment, whilst at the same time building more resilient and less fragile supply chains, will be vital. Small and (potentially) high growth firms will play a key role, especially in encouraging and enabling more businesses to expand and scale up.

Overall, despite universities in the region securing a higher percentage of research funding than the national higher education sector does on average, overall investment in Research and Development (R&D) in the region is far too low (particularly in the private sector). But we can build on the existing infrastructure in the region (e.g. Advanced Manufacturing in Sheffield City Region; Health-tech in Leeds City Region; Low Carbon Economy and Offshore wind on the Humber; and the Bio-economy in York and North Yorkshire) as these provide the foundations to turn the R&D deficit around.

In 2018-19, over 196,000 students – the majority female – studied at universities in Yorkshire, and initial demand to study at Yorkshire’s universities from September is higher than the same period last year. Our universities attract a large and diverse student population from 120 countries. Collectively, the twelve members of Yorkshire Universities support 56,000 jobs, and contribute £3 billion a year towards the region’s economy. However, COVID-19 is having a major impact on the higher education sector, as it is on all parts of our economy and society. In particular, universities are working doubly hard to help students graduating from our universities find work or undertake further study.

The gap between Yorkshire and the rest of the country in the number of workers qualified to Level 4 (or above) has acted as a drag on regional productivity and wages. We need to improve higher-level skills, as part of a post-COVID 19 skills, apprenticeships and technical education system, which reflects the economic and societal priorities we face now and will face in the future. Yorkshire is a magnet for students, but we need more graduates to stay in the region, by fostering an environment where there is greater demand for their skills and talent.

The core aims of Yorkshire Universities’ members are to demonstrate what universities are good at, and what universities are good for. To our members, the civic university can operate both at a global scale and be underpinned by strong local and regional foundations.

For too long, Yorkshire has under-performed economically, as it has had to manage the legacies of de-industrialisation whilst being curtailed by an over-centralised national state. The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified health and other socio-economic inequalities within and across the region. During the last six months, our universities have mobilised their capacities and capabilities for the public good.

Universities make a positive contribution to the economic, social and cultural life of Yorkshire. However, they cannot do this in isolation. It is only by universities working together with business, local government, health and care sector, FE colleges and local communities that the recovery and rebuilding of Yorkshire post-COVID can begin, and a more prosperous future for the people and places of ‘God’s Own County’ be achieved.

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