The last twelve months have seen COVID-19 impact in ways we could never have imagined. No one can fail to be shocked by the stories of how the virus has devastated lives, communities, businesses and places, but perhaps at the same time we are also inspired and thankful for the efforts of those on the front-line who have kept essential services functioning.
During the third national lockdown (in England), the figure of 120,000 deaths in the UK from the disease was surpassed, and thousands of others have seen their health deteriorate having caught the virus or because of other medical conditions. The health consequences of COVID have been uneven, with studies suggesting that the pandemic has hit the north of England particularly hard. As we await the Prime Minister to reveal the government’s roadmap out of the current restrictions, over 17 million people have received their first vaccine dose. But economic reality has begun to bite. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, GDP in November 2020 was 9% lower than before the pandemic, and the UK economy is unlikely to return to its 2019 level until the final quarter of 2022. Unemployment is also predicted to reach 2.6 million in the middle of 2021 – nearly 8% of the working-age population.
As we look optimistically to the future, any meaningful recovery will depend on doubling down on the social and spatial inequalities we face as a country and as a region. The disparities between regions in England were widening when COVID emerged, and they have been exacerbated since. We know that regions, such as Yorkshire, have been less resilient and have taken longer to bounce back from previous shocks, and that a similar pattern may arise this time.
The levelling up agenda requires careful and precise definition, and this is possible by focusing clearer attention and efforts on narrowing the structural barriers to improved economic, social and health opportunities and outcomes, between regions. As some experts have suggested, this requires a fundamental examination of how we organise our lives, and the operation of, and value we place on, our social and economic systems. It also needs government policies and interventions (including those carried out by its agencies) to be more sensitive and specific to individual places.
With a total student population nearing 200,000, the twelve members of Yorkshire Universities played a central role in responding to the immediate crisis, when COVID first appeared last year, and their continued contributions will be vital if the region is to ‘build back better’. Recent UCAS figures have revealed an increase in undergraduate student applications, and the region itself provides the highest percentage of new recruits to Yorkshire’s universities. With the demand for higher education (HE) set to grow in all regions, as the nature of the economy and society evolves, even greater weight will be placed on the presence of an inclusive, diverse and sustainable HE system in Yorkshire.
Others, of course, have an important role to play in skills, but very often it is the relationships between universities, business, public sector and further education (FE) colleges that provide the foundation for agile and flexible forms of learning – such as Degree Apprenticeships – and support for the (re)training of individuals and the development of new career pathways. And crucially, it is a partnership approach that is raising aspirations, increasing opportunities and widening access and participation to HE, and entry into university, for those in some of the most disadvantaged communities. Similarly, collaboration is the watchword underpinning attempts to strengthen knowledge exchange and enterprise and entrepreneurial activities between universities and businesses – a recognised driver of increased innovation and improved productivity – with students and graduates featuring predominantly as prime agents.
The recent FE White Paper presents a new opportunity for the FE sector. Plans include new mechanisms for post-16 education and lifelong learning, but the success of these measures also depends on strong and collaborative HE and FE sectors in the region. Yorkshire needs this, and the people, places and business of the region deserve it. Anything less would undermine the ‘levelling up’ agenda.