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.