What on earth is ‘levelling up’?

This blog was written by Ronalds Busulwa, PhD student at the University of Huddersfield. Winner of the PERN blog competition, an achievement he shares with Marrion (Mo) Todd. To follow Ronalds on Twitter go to @BlackstudentsMH

I am glad you asked! Imagine a mountain where some people are at the top while others are at the bottom, trying to get all the people to the same level is ‘levelling up’, in other words trying to bring something to an equal level or position compared to another. Ok not the best analogy but work with me here, it will make sense. It is to do with ensuring that no community is left behind in resource distribution, sounds great, right? You see, where power lies matters, and the root cause of the UK regional divides is ‘over-centralization’ (concentration of power or many administrative functions in one place). One wonders why the same government in power for 12 yrs of ‘un levelling up’ is calling for ‘levelling up’ now. Cynicism aside let’s sink our teeth into this.

Is there any meat on the bones of the ‘levelling up’ policy’?

Here is thing, the most fundamental flaw in the ‘levelling up’ is this, for those at the bottom to level up, those at the top need to lose something, and that seems to go against this Government’s ethos. In the North of England, Government spending has fallen by £696m since 2012 while the South has seen an increase of 7bn. Then the government abandons plans for a high-speed railway linking the North to the South, and that was it, the eastern leg of HS2 meant to connect the Midlands and Leeds was abandoned.With the HS2 which was supposed to address the North-South divide now dead, what the government is telling those in the North is “you are not worth investing in” leavingregional interconnectivity grossly reduced.

How did it get to this? Well, one school of thought is that it’s the electoral shocks that drove the regional inequalities up the Whitehall and Westminster agenda. And the fact of the matter is that it’s almost impossible for democracy to work anymore when governments are only concerned with the people who gave them power by voting for them. Therefore, levelling up is only aimed at constituencies that returned a Tory member of parliament. The intentions of ‘levelling up’ have a lot to be applauded for example, more power should be held locally, and there’s a lot to like in encouraging local government restructuring to create the establishments that are able to take on powers, a lot to applaud but am afraid that is probably the best bit in it. And if the intentions give us hope for a better future, then this in itself is a success.

The Levelling Up white paper recently released seeks to solve regional inequalities, and it’s about distribution of resources or to be blatant money. Given that ‘levelling up’ is about distribution of finances, it’s remarkable that it was hardly mentioned in the Chancellor’s speech & features vaguely only 5 times in the full Spring Statement 2022.

So, if the treasury is not fully behind this ambitious policy how can it turn into reality? To us the people levelling up is much more than a policy, it’s access to education, employment, decent public transport, life expectancy etc and it shouldn’t be just an optional extra which is nice to have.

Last thoughts Although there’s a lot to be applauded in the intentions, levelling up is perhaps unique in its scope and ambition and the real question is what will success look like? The mayor of Manchester succinctly put it ‘levelling up’ is a carefully crafted phrase designed to appeal to the gullible. Much like “Take back control”, well time will tell.

This blog was written by Ronalds Busulwa. He is a second year PhD student at the University of Huddersfield. His research is exploring the role of faith in the Mental Health of black students at University in the UK. Ronalds is currently a Mental Health practitioner and lecturer; and also an Addictions Therapist.

Disclaimer:

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Yorkshire Universities, PERN or the University of Huddersfield.

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Levelling up and the dangers of rebranding equality

This blog was written by Marrion (Mo) Todd, Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Huddersfield. Winner of the PERN blog competition, an achievement she shares with Ronalds Busulwa. To follow Mo on Twitter go to @MoTodd5

Why has equality been given a makeover? Why are headlines incomplete without a nod towards the levelling up agenda? Why does equality need a new buzz phrase to engage people? Are we suffering from political correctness fatigue and does levelling up provide respite from that? These are all questions that burst into my head when levelling-up became the latest political waggon. Being a literature student (whose likeness to an engineer always makes me smile), I can take things apart. So let’s deconstruct this term levelling-up to see what it hides.

Equality is about being equal, about meeting in the middle, about everyone getting a fair whack at life’s pinata to see what goodies drop out. Whilst levelling-up promotes empowerment, it also supports stasis. To me levelling up presupposes there is a system in place of haves and have nots, with the haves on top and the have nots below. The theory is that the haves empower those with less advantage to step up to the same level. What’s wrong with that? Surely, everyone on an equal footing is what we’re after. I have an answer to that – colonialism. Wasn’t colonialism marketed as a levelling up policy, looking to improve native populations by introducing Western methods and Western languages into their cultures? There is a nasty aftertaste of nineteenth century patronage that also comes with levelling up; with those in power smugly patting themselves on the back for their benevolence whilst those running towards them try to elbow each other out of the way in their fight to be the ones favoured.

Levelling up suggests the ones at the top, who have always been able to see over the wall from the start of the game, simply take time out to build boxes for everyone else to stand on. In the meantime, everyone else has to wait. Why not simply remove the wall? The wall stays intact because the wall is a supporting structure, and box making is an enterprise that can generate both labour and money. So the people who need a box to stand on end up being handed the materials and the tools to make the box, whilst the person who already enjoys the privileged view carries on unchanged. Whilst I am all in favour of box makers the world over, sitting back and thinking that providing tools for people to build boxes solves the problem, particularly whilst those already in power get to carry on building walls. That is why, if equality needs a make-over, I prefer levelling out as its upgrade. Levelling out suggests the removal of the walls, so everyone gets an equal opportunity from wherever they are to take part, and also embraces the previously recognized needs from the equality agenda, for a redistribution of wealth and resources. The world is suffering from the excesses of human activity, therefore people need to be encouraged to change, not to stand still enjoying their excess whilst encouraging others to join them.

Whilst the levelling up agenda encourages those with the resources to help those with less, it still encourages classist binary distinctions and does not appear to directly address those patronizing overtones. The lasting impression appears to be one where gratitude is expected for receiving handouts, similar to a recently released teacher being criticized for not gushing over being released when she should never have been imprisoned in the first place.

Having had my moment standing on the box I’ve made, despite my criticism of levelling up as a term, there is much to be welcomed by the amount of airtime devoted to tackling equality. But with that in mind, let us be clear it’s equality we want, not a bigger box.

Mo Todd is a married mother of two, researching Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and its relevance to current changes to masculine identity. Mo graduated with first class honours in History with English Literature in 2012. When not knee deep in academic work, Mo co-directs a publishing business called Montidots Ltd whose output mainly consists of fantasy role-playing games written and illustrated by Simon Todd.

Disclaimer:

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Yorkshire Universities, PERN or the University of Huddersfield.

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Levelling up is not a zero-sum game

Dr Peter O’Brien, YU Executive Director

In last Sunday’s newspapers, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, confirmed that the government is planning to publish its long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper this week.

Whilst other events have pre-occupied the government recently, demand has nevertheless been growing for a clearer direction as to how the government proposes to address entrenched social and spatial disparities in England (and the wider UK), not least against a backdrop of an emergent cost of living crisis and evidence that Covid has widened inequalities. In advance of the White Paper, several reports have provided cogent analysis and templates for how the concept of levelling up can move beyond theory and into practical policies on the ground. Universities, of all shapes and sizes, have much to contribute to this agenda – something that Yorkshire Universities (YU) and our member institutions are committed to – as illustrated in YU’s current Strategy.

At YU, we unashamedly promote Yorkshire. But in doing so, we avoid a ‘beggar thy neighbour’ approach, seeing no merit in regions being pitted against other regions or cities and towns lined up against fellow cities and towns, scrapping for national resources. Indeed, along with many of our partners in Yorkshire and elsewhere, we back those who have encouraged the government to reduce the prevalence of national competitions for place-based funding and introduce more devolved mechanisms. YU’s mission is to help Yorkshire become more successful, and we undertake this task by making, wherever possible, a positive case for how more public and private sector investment could unlock greater potential, build on existing assets, and create more and better jobs. We are also seeking to persuade government to recognise how Yorkshire can play a more significant part in building a more productive, prosperous and greener national economy.

In a new blog for HEPI, this week, Diana Beech, CEO of London Higher, presented a strong argument as to why limited, and perhaps symbolic policy measures – e.g. removing HE London Weighting in the name of levelling up – can hurt some of the poorest communities and citizens of London. Diana and I have written together in the past about the shared challenges that London Higher and YU members and our economies and communities face. We have called upon national government to adopt a greater spatial focus to economic development policy, and we both recognise the value of universities working closely with devolved bodies, such as the Greater London Authority (and Mayor) and Mayoral Combined Authorities. As we await the White Paper, we want to see more devolution in London, Yorkshire and other regions in England, as strong and effective sub-national institutions are recognised internationally as a key ingredient of improved regional growth and prosperity.

Levelling up is difficult, and there are no short-cuts. Tackling poverty in London, generated and amplified, in part, by the high cost of housing, whilst at the same time investing more in regions like Yorkshire, is not a zero-sum game. The left-behind agenda has a regional dimension – as Yorkshire can testify to – but it is also a problem in London, which has been described as a ‘city of two halves’. The path to genuine levelling up does not lie in constraining the opportunity for prospective students from disadvantaged backgrounds, wherever they live, to go to university. Levelling up will be undermined if particular measures on graduate outcomes, such as those proposed by the Office for Students, come to fruition, as these may accentuate existing spatial divisions of (higher) education. And neither will it succeed if, in perception or reality, it sees the transfer of direct or indirect funding between poorer communities across the country. Levelling up should be more transformative, equitable, strategic, and durable than that. The test now is whether the White Paper can provide a springboard for achieving positive impact and real change.

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CAPE Case Study: Richard Whittle, Policy Fellow (January 2022) 

Strengthening academic-policy engagement in West Yorkshire

First published in CAPEnews Issue 8, 25 January

CAPE is looking to understand how universities can mobilise their research findings and capabilities by working with local and regional authorities in order to enhance evidence-informed policymaking. CAPE’s West Yorkshire Policy Fellow was established in the context of West Yorkshire’s changing political landscape: the establishment of the region’s first Mayor.  

Through the fellowship, we are exploring how embedding knowledge brokerage within new political infrastructure can support place-based policy making processes, especially regarding the regions’ economic recovery from the impacts of the pandemic. In particular, CAPE is looking at how the fellow can enable linkages and engagement with West Yorkshire Combined Authority, local authorities, West Yorkshire universities and the Place-Based Economic Recovery Network (PERN) to delivery policy processes and outcomes that are driven by and support the regions’ communities.

We asked our CAPE policy fellow, Dr Richard Whittle, to reflect on what’s happened to date in his first 6 (of 12 months) in post.

A bit about me

I’m Dr Richard Whittle, an economist with a background in behavioural and computer science. I’m particularly interested in public policy formation and its evidence based, including the role of Artificial Intelligence in Public Policy, understanding of online communities and approaches to financing and investment. Broadly my research encompasses the impact of technology on society. Previously I led the MSc Taxation and Fiscal Policy developed with HMRC for Senior Civil Servants and recently led the review of the retail economy for the Greater Manchester Independent Prosperity Review. My latest research, funded by the ESRC Productivity Insights Network, investigates the future of retail in West Yorkshire.

West Yorkshire has the potential for meaningful and long-lasting academic policy engagement infrastructure

I was awarded a CAPE fellowship in July 2021 working with Yorkshire Universities, the Place-based Economic Recovery Network (PERN) and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, to lead an innovative project tasked with strengthening the use and application of university research to inform public policy in West Yorkshire. This got off to a rapid start and on my first day I received my second Covid vaccination and presented to the West Yorkshire Economic Recovery Board on the implications of C-19 on the future of retail in the region. This was a clear indication of how this fellowship would progress. The academic policy engagement infrastructure in West Yorkshire developed by Yorkshire Universities has the potential to be deep, meaningful and long-lasting and the CAPE fellowship is increasingly key in this process.

Place-based networks are strengthening engagement

The key vehicle in strengthening academic policy engagement in West-Yorkshire is the Place-Based Economic Recovery Network (PERN). PERN is an academic led, multi-university network of experts in place based economic recovery, regeneration and resilience. It was established to offer support to West Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority, Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, and other public bodies, such as local authorities in the design, plan and implementation of COVID recovery efforts.

PERN is a single body with an academic representative from each of the 7 West-Yorkshire Universities and provides multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary perspectives. It acts as a direct source of reference for the Combined and Local Authorities as well as support for the CAPE fellowship. Via the fellowship, PERN have been invited to engage with numerous policy makers and policy professionals at many levels within West-Yorkshire. PERN has developed evidence and engaged meaningfully with policy in several aspects of economic recovery, the safety of women and girls, regional tax policy, skills development, innovation mapping and much more. Crucially several impactful policy co-creation relationships have been established supporting policy professionals and academic research impact.

We are shifting towards regional policy engagement

Prior to the fellowship starting, the academic policy engagement culture was strong, especially between a university and its local government, though usually a function of relationships between a small number of academics and policy professionals. The fellowship has helped facilitate policy engagement between the West-Yorkshire University Sector and regional policy in general. This is a key shift in supporting evidence based policy in West-Yorkshire.

Dr Richard Whittle is playing a crucial role in building on the initial building blocks designed to strengthen academic research and policy engagement in West Yorkshire, principally through the West Mayoral Combined Authority. Research and evidence is seen increasingly as essential to informing and shaping effective policy and strategy in West Yorkshire in the areas of local and regional development, social mobility, policy and crime strategy, economic intelligence and foresight.

Dr Pete O’Brien, Executive Director of Yorkshire Universities

The fellowship has also embraced and developed a number of initiatives for academic policy engagement including directly funded research, roundtables with selected academic experts and relevant policy leads, the creation of expert directories, evidence submissions and representation on numerous policy committees. Above all however is the facilitation of trusted partnerships and academic policy relationships developing a longer term cultural shift in academic policy engagement. The fellowship provides an important conduit and stable point of contact between the multiple policy and academic actors in West Yorkshire.

Our outputs and what we’re looking towards

PERN have supported a workstream examining ‘the barriers to working class participation in policy making’ and expect the first piece of academic research in this stream to be available shortly. This will be accompanied by a succession of policy engagement measures bringing the PERN academic community together in a vitally important issue and supporting evidence based policy development

PERN, Yorkshire Universities and this fellowship is making a considerable impact in numerous and varied areas, bringing together academics, policy makers and policy professionals to inform and co-create policy. For example working in collaboration with the Combined Authority, PERN has commissioned an academic evidence review examining the safety of women and girls in West Yorkshire.  This ongoing policy engagement is led by researchers from the None In Three Research Centre based at the University of Huddersfield and is a key demonstration of PERN supporting academic policy engagement.

Fellowships deepen understanding of how to connect with policy

My CAPE fellowship has had a huge positive impact on my development as a policy focussed academic, I have far greater insight into the policy making process and its evidence base enabling the strengthening of my research and its own impact. I would urge every academic who researches a policy relevant area to consider a fellowship working with policy making institutions to really understand how they can connect with policy.

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Working together, universities can connect diverse research assets, for the benefit of all

Monika Antal, Executive Manager

This blog was first published by JiSC on 21 January 2022

Like many universities across the nation, the 12 members of the Yorkshire Universities (YU) group supported the COVID-19 response, working with the NHS, government, industry and local authorities to act swiftly.

From vaccines to treatments, analysing data, and sharing buildings, laboratories and facilities, universities of all sizes played a critical role in supporting communities in fighting the pandemic. Indeed, the Universities UK (UUK) campaign #WeAreTogether showcased the ways in which higher education institutions (HEIs) have helped large parts of society.

As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, there’s an opportunity to consider how the UK research and innovation sector could improve the management of its research estate and infrastructure.

We don’t need to wait for another ‘shock’ to materialise before we act to be more innovative and ambitious. Climate change and the environment emergencies are already happening. They are long-term and complex issues that warrant the mobilisation and collation of physical and intangible assets of HEIs, which together comprise the ‘research estate’.

Climate change, along with levelling up, and health and wellbeing are central to the civic and inclusive agenda at anchor universities in Yorkshire and the Humber.

Regional collaboration

To this end, YU, backed by the 12 vice-chancellors and principals of its members, has signed a memorandum of understanding with Yorkshire and Humber Councils (YHC) which represents 22 local authorities and two mayoral combined authorities.

This commits both parties to work together on the key opportunities and challenges facing the region. In taking this work forward, they have agreed to:

  • Respond collectively to government consultations and policy initiatives
  • Produce joint evidence bases and analyses to influence national government policies and strategies
  • Encourage wider active engagement and participation in learning from academic research projects
  • Share knowledge and assets

Evidenced-based strategy and policy matters. Cities, regions and other local areas that can demonstrate acute knowledge and understanding about their economies, societies and environments, are better placed to make strong cases to attract investment and jobs.

As part of this effort, YU is heavily committed to the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission (YHCC), the largest regional commission in the UK, which launched a regional climate action plan on 10 November 2021 during COP26.

YU convenes a research and evidence panel (REP), which provides scientific advice to the commission. This ensures that the commission connects to the region’s research base to strengthen the evidence base underpinning its work and to allow it to foster and benefit from future research.  

Key to supporting the delivery of the YHCC Action Plan and other interventions is informative, authoritative and robust research and evidence, which will be underpinned by YU’s diverse, internationally recognised research base.

In order to ensure that we draw upon this depth and breadth of expertise and talent, YU is undertaking a comprehensive audit of the skills, capabilities and capacities of its member institutions, so that the Commission can identify the best and most effective expertise in the delivery of the climate action plan.

Expertise database

The YHCC REP has developed a questionnaire to create a dynamic database of expertise across the region. The questionnaire helps capture both the broad breadth and depth of expertise across the various institutes, centres, groups, along with individual researchers based in the region’s universities.

The REP is also looking to develop a pilot Regional Climate Observatory to monitor delivery of the regional climate action plan, as well as a sustainable development index to measure the success of interventions and progress towards achieving net zero targets for our region.

We look forward to working with regional consortia across the UK and funders to support the next generation of developing a next-generation digital approach to the management of the research estate. University research, when better connected with policy making means that environmental and societal change is achieved for the benefit of all.

Note to editors:

Yorkshire Universities – has a shared commitment to strengthen the contribution of universities and higher education institutions to the economic, social and civic well-being of people and places in Yorkshire.

The members of Yorkshire Universities are: Leeds Arts University; Leeds Conservatoire; Leeds Beckett University; Leeds Trinity University; Sheffield Hallam University; University of Bradford; University of Huddersfield; University of Hull; University of Leeds; University of Sheffield; University of York; and York St John University.

The Chair of Yorkshire Universities is Professor Shirley Congdon, Vice-Chancellor, University of Bradford.

This example of best practice supports Jisc’s research and innovation strategy 2021-2023, aimed at improving the ‘recording of the UK’s research estate in support of a UK-wide research capability’.

Jisc – has committed to upgrade its own equipment.data platform which harvests and supplies a range of sector equipment catalogues. This will ensure it can support the full range of user applications to make research assets discoverable.

In association with sector partners, Jisc is looking at how digital, data and technology approaches can support innovation in the research estate – for example to support decisions about renewal and strategic commissioning, informing place strategies and policies as well as the environmental management of the research estate and significant investments in future technology.

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Introducing YU’s new Policy and Research Officer

Marina Tapley, Policy and Research Officer

I joined Yorkshire Universities (YU) in November as the new Policy and Research Officer. After being part of the Executive Team for over a month, I am taking the opportunity to introduce myself, and to reflect on what I have enjoyed getting involved with at YU so far, and what I am most looking forward to in this role.

I recently attended a Yorkshire University myself; I am a graduate in International Relations and French from the University of Leeds. During my studies, I covered a broad range of topics, but focused on the theme of security and linked security to UK climate policy in my dissertation, where I examined the reactions of different actors to the climate crisis. I also worked on counter-terrorism research, as part of a Laidlaw Research and Leadership Scholarship that enabled me to co-author a journal article and policy brief, as well as to present my research at academic conferences.

One of my favourite parts of student life was the clubs and societies I was involved with. I am passionate about environmental and social justice, so I was especially proud to help establish the University of Leeds Student-Staff Climate Coalition from its inception during my final year. I am really optimistic about the roles that YU and its member institutions can play in our region’s response to the climate crisis and in particular their relationship with the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission (YHCC). Since starting at YU, I have learned about the work of the YHCC Research & Evidence Panel, including its current mapping exercise of existing expertise, and I am excited to see how this will support the implementation of the new YHCC Climate Action Plan. Universities are vital in helping the region address the climate emergency, and I hope to help YU coordinate collaboration in this area.

As part of my undergraduate studies, I also spent a year abroad in Brussels working for a consultancy firm, IBF International Consulting, and had the opportunity to support an EU-funded capacity building project, Election Observation and Democracy Support (EODS). At EODS, I managed and updated a database of caselaw relating to electoral and political rights. I am enthusiastic to build on my interest in political systems within a different context to improve my understanding of the governance structures in the region at an exciting time of change, following the election of the first West Yorkshire Mayor, now in situ alongside the Mayor of South Yorkshire. I am interested to see how devolution evolves in Yorkshire and how universities can support existing and emerging leadership within the region.

After graduating, I worked for a domestic abuse charity on a pilot project, in partnership with Birmingham City Council, providing tailored housing support to women fleeing domestic violence. In this role, I saw some of the barriers facing university students trying to flee domestic abuse, particularly given that most full-time university students are not eligible for housing benefit to cover the cost of emergency accommodation, such as refuge. Since starting at YU, I have continued to work in this area, supporting an ongoing evidence review on the safety of women and girls, commissioned by the Place Based Economic Recovery, Regeneration and Resilience Network (PERN) and led by the University of Huddersfield. The evidence review will enable the West Yorkshire Combined Authority to develop a new strategy to support the safety of women and girls, a key manifesto pledge of the West Yorkshire Mayor, Tracy Brabin. Through my role at YU, I hope to contribute further to this collaboration, which aims to improve prevention of gender-based violence and support victims and survivors. I am also looking forward, more broadly, to help facilitate academic research expertise to help shape policy and support local leadership.

As someone who graduated in 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I welcome the fact that universities in Yorkshire are working closer together to support students and graduates. One example is the Yorkshire and the Humber Student Mental Health Network, which brings together the region’s universities and the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities to encourage greater collaboration around mental health support for students.  I have also been involved in YU’s Graduate Labour Market Task & Finish Group, which aims to support graduate employment and enterprise. Here, it has been fascinating to learn about the vast range of initiatives that exist to support students and graduates to access employment in Yorkshire, and the potential to strengthen the region’s offer further.

One of main reasons I wanted to work for YU is to contribute towards the organisation’s key role in facilitating broad partnerships with a range of actors across the region, which aim to help reduce inequities and create a more inclusive region.  Universities are increasingly focused on their place within local communities and how they support local and regional development, as illustrated in the framework agreed by YU and Yorkshire and Humber Councils in their recent Memorandum of Understanding.

As YU’s Policy and Research Officer, I have an excellent opportunity to put into practice the policy and research skills that I have learned during my studies and since graduation. I am looking forward to continuing my development across a wide range of interesting topics covered by YU’s varied work. Personally, I am also delighted to have the opportunity to move back home to Yorkshire, and to deepen my knowledge and understanding of, and connection to, this brilliant region.

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YU’s take on the 2021 NCUB State of the Relationship Report

Marina Tapley, Policy and Research Officer

On Friday 3 December the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) published their State of the Relationship 2021 report and held an online launch event. This think piece reflects on the report and event, as well as situating them within the context of the relationships between universities and businesses in Yorkshire.

Context from the UK Government

Collaboration between universities and business has a key role to play in fostering innovation and developing talent, which is needed to meet the government’s ambition for the UK to lead on science and innovation. George Freeman, the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, spoke at the State of the Relationship launch event and stressed that there is agreement from the whole cabinet that science, technology and innovation need to be at the heart of the economy. Freeman said that there is a cross government commitment to the UK becoming a “science superpower” and an “innovation nation”, as backed up by announcement of increases in public R&D funding to £20bn by 2024-25 and creating conditions for further private investment. Freeman also emphasised that the government is committed to spreading funding to support clusters all around the country and recognising that a wide range of universities are at the forefront of innovation, technology and business engagement.

Key Data

The data in the new NCUB report primarily covers the period from July 2019 – August 2020. Importantly, this is the first data covering the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the period does also combine data from immediately before the pandemic as well. One of the key findings of the State of the Relationship report was that interactions between universities and businesses fell by nearly a third (31%) in 2019-20, down from a record high in the previous reporting period. Significantly, this fall in interactions was disproportionately split by company size, with interactions with large businesses falling only 2%, while interactions with Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) fell by 39%. It was highlighted that while the pandemic will have had a large impact on these figures, other issues, such as Brexit, had contributed towards decreased SME engagement. Despite the fall in total interactions, commercialisation metrics continued to strengthen, with a 20% increase in licences granted, a 9% increase in patents and the continuing importance of spin-outs.

Collaboration Trends

Three key collaboration trends were identified in the report:

  • “The rise and rise of the innovation district”
  • “Spin-ins spin out new opportunities”
  • “Building the collaborative workforce of the future”

The growing interest in innovation places highlights the continuing importance of geographical proximity, even with moves towards online working. Nexus at the University of Leeds was spotlighted in the NCUB report as part of “a new generation of innovation places”, with the rise of innovation districts or quarters within cities and increasing focus on using innovation clusters to address broader societal issues. Dr Martin Stow, Nexus Director, contributed to the report by highlighting the importance of innovation ecosystems as “a catalyst for creativity, collaboration and community”, creating economic and social benefits at all geographic levels from local to global. Benefits of innovation places include providing education and employment into highly skilled jobs, which supports social mobility and inclusive growth. Stow emphasised the role universities can play as a catalyst by bringing together knowledge, talent, facilities, and finance. Nexus specifically plays a role in creating an environment that addresses business needs and fosters connections between a diverse community, supporting innovative solutions, high growth businesses and impactful products and services. There are a range of other examples of innovation hubs across the region, including the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre (3M BIC) in Huddersfield and the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District (AMID) in Sheffield, which has secured an additional £763,000 in government funding for its further development.

These innovation places directly support spin-outs and the growing importance of spin-ins. The NCUB report describes spin-ins as “companies that benefit from university inventions, research, technologies and/or facilities, often in return for an equity stake”. Centres like Nexus and 3M BIC provide a clear access point to help businesses tap into university resources and so encourage spin-ins. Nexus provides a base for a diverse range of companies including global high growth businesses, providing support around: community and networks; research and innovation; skills and talent; workspace and facilities. 3M BIC also supports a range of businesses, focusing on SMEs, and help is centred around access to knowledge, support, technology and facilities. The University of Hull’s Aura Innovation Centre focuses on helping businesses with carbon reducing initiatives through support with funding, facilities, skills and knowledge.

Building a collaborative workforce is another important area for universities and businesses to work together, and it was highlighted that there is a need for better flows between academia, training and industry. Universities have a key role in developing talent and helping to address skills gaps, but there is also a need for talent pathways through academia and industry to flow in both directions to allow the effective exchange of knowledge and skills. This is an area where Yorkshire Universities aims to support existing and emerging initiatives in the region, including convening a specific task and finish group on the graduate labour market, bringing together representatives from universities, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and businesses around the topic of graduate employment.

There are many existing initiatives across Yorkshire that facilitate collaboration around employment and ongoing training opportunities. There are partnerships, between universities, local authorities and businesses, that aim to support graduates to find work in their city of study and help address skills gaps. Examples include #InLeeds and the RISE programme in Sheffield, which specifically connects to SMEs. There are also initiatives to support ongoing training and upskilling of SME leaders in areas such as management and digital skills to support growth and innovation, as is the case for Help to Grow, a government backed programme supported by Leeds Beckett University. There are also a range of sector specific groups and networks, which encourage collaboration between universities and industry across the region and support talent pipelines, including the Yorkshire and Humber Academic Health Science Network, White Rose Industrial Physics Academy, Connected Campus (Screen Yorkshire) and Space Hub Yorkshire. Yorkshire’s universities also offer a range of support around employability and entrepreneurship, including support for start-ups, agencies for freelancers, placements and projects within courses, careers fairs and talks, careers services and platforms, and employability skills embedded in the curriculum.

Collaboration with SMEs

Strengthening SME engagement should be a key priority moving forward given the large fall (-39%) in total interactions highlighted in NCUB’s report. This was addressed at the launch event where the importance of reducing timescales and bureaucracy, as well as increasing clarity around intellectual property rights in any collaboration, were highlighted as key steps that could help increase SME engagements. It was emphasised that collaboration could represent just one project for a university or large company, but it takes up much more relative capacity for an SME and could be their entire business, meaning they are particularly vulnerable to changes in timescales and red tape. There are already many initiatives that place a particular focus on collaboration with SMEs in the region, some of which have already been mentioned above. It is also worth drawing attention to the work of other organisations and partnerships in facilitating and coordinating these relationships between universities and SMEs. For example, Leeds City Region LEP runs the Skills for Growth programme which connects SMEs with local schools, colleges and universities around skills gaps, talent and productivity. Another example is the work of York & North Yorkshire LEP around local graduates supporting SMEs with digital skills for business recovery and a partnership with the University of York on supporting graduates into jobs with SMEs. The Go Higher West Yorkshire partnership also has a range of activities in this area including their Skills Group working with higher and further education partners on opportunities for graduate employment and employer engagement, particularly supporting SME engagement.

Collaboration to Tackle Global Challenges

Another key theme highlighted in the NCUB report was the importance of working together to tackle complex challenges and find innovative solutions that surpass existing structures. The contribution of Professor Simone Buitendijk, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds, and Professor Nick Plant, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research & Innovation, to the report highlighted the importance of collaboration over competition to help address complex and interconnected global issues through innovation and entrepreneurship. To work towards this, it was highlighted that projects should include diverse networks (from universities, industry and policy) throughout all stages of development and implementation to allow a better understanding of the problem from the beginning and encourage more inclusive solutions. Other actions highlighted as important for collaboration included: clear entry points; themed networking events; efforts to reduce inequality; use of innovative technology and training in digital skills. Against this context, it was reassuring to read that more Vice-Chancellors are prioritising, in their institutional strategies, regional impact and employer engagement over peer competition.

Broad Networks of Collaboration

Engagement between universities and businesses should not be viewed in isolation, instead it should be considered as a key aspect within broader ecosystems of collaboration with policymakers and other education providers, as well as other areas of the public and third sector. It is also important that collaboration and innovation between universities and businesses is not just seen in terms of science and technology, but also across all sectors and domains. Yorkshire Universities is contributing directly to facilitating broad networks of collaboration through involvement in the Regional Development Group and the West Yorkshire Innovation Network (WYIN). In the last WYIN meeting there were presentations spotlighting the role of universities in the region including the 3M BIC in Huddersfield and the role of Leeds Beckett in the Help to Grow programme. Higher education providers and businesses will need to work closer together, and with a wide range of actors, including further education providers, local and combined authorities, and civil society, to ensure that innovation drives greater inclusive growth and that collaboration efforts truly meet the needs of society at all levels.

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Why we need more inward investment to meet our R&D targets

James Ransom, YU Associate

The contribution of business is vital if the UK is to meet its target of R&D investment reaching 2.4 percent of GDP by 2027. International comparisons suggest that this is an ambitious target, that will be difficult to meet: achieving R&D funding goals is the exception rather than the norm. Adão Carvalho assessed how effective R&D intensity policies were across 45 countries, and found that 84 percent missed their targets. For 17 percent of countries, R&D intensity actually decreased over the period of the target.

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Solidarity or spectacle – two paths to levelling up

James Ransom, YU Associate

Politicians are fond of comparing the UK to Germany – usually as a model of how we could do something better. A recent example is Boris Johnson’s speech on levelling up from last month. “I remember going to former East Germany in 1990 just after the wall had gone down”, he said, “and I remember being amazed at how far behind west Germany it then was – a place of strange little cars with two stroke engines and fake coffee”. But then he adds, “to a large extent Germany has succeeded in levelling up where we have not”.

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The creative industries matter to London, Yorkshire and the nation

As published in HEPI on 15 June 2021.

This blog has been kindly contributed by Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher, and Dr Peter O’Brien, Executive Director of Yorkshire Universities – the umbrella bodies representing universities and higher education colleges across their respective regions. You can find Diana and Peter on Twitter at @dianajbeech and @obrienpeter72.

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Regional Policy, ‘Levelling Up’ and R&D: a north of England perspective

As published on HEPI on 3 June 2021.

This blog was contributed by Dr Annette Bramley, Director, N8 Research Partnership and Dr Peter O’Brien, Executive Director, Yorkshire Universities. This blog is in response to the recent HEPI report on Regional Policy and R&D. You can find Annette and Peter on Twitter @AnnetteB_N8 and @obrienpeter72.

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The contribution of Yorkshire’s universities to economic recovery

James Ransom, YU Associate

Universities UK launched a report today on the potential impact of the UK’s universities over the next five years. I wrote the report, which forms part of the #GettingResults campaign – showcasing the key role UK universities are set to play in the economic and social recovery from Covid-19.

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Graduates, Jobs and Levelling Up Yorkshire

Dr Peter O’Brien, Executive Director

Last week, the Queen’s Speech set out the government’s legislative programme for the next session of Parliament, with two bills in particular likely to have a direct impact on the higher education system. In this blog, I frame my comments around the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which is situated alongside the government’s commitment to ‘Level Up’ the regions, and in particular the proposal, as set out in the Queens Speech, to bring more jobs and training to people where they live.

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Boosting regional research and development: The role of regional university networks

As published by HEPI on 14 May 2021

This blog has been kindly contributed by Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher, and Dr Peter O’Brien, Executive Director of Yorkshire Universities – the umbrella bodies representing universities and higher education colleges across their respective regions. You can find Diana and Peter on Twitter at @dianajbeech and @obrienpeter72

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The climate emergency requires local and regional action in Yorkshire

Monika Antal, Executive Manager

This week saw the launch of the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission. This independent advisory group brings together a team of climate leaders from across the public, private and third sectors to work collaboratively with local authorities to help drive climate action and respond to the most serious threats facing the region.

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