How not to respond to Labour’s securonomics agenda

Public First and Wonkhe recently brought together university vice chancellors, policy wonks, and defence experts to discuss securonomics. Jess Lister and James Coe discuss the economic policy PR problem

Jess Lister is Associate Director in the Education Practice at Public First

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

The problem with new economic policies is that they are sometimes more soundbite than substance.

Levelling up, the great Johnsonian idea to rebalance the UK’s economy, is mentioned only eight times in the Conservative’s 2024 manifesto and largely to explain what they have done not what they will do. The IfS in an excoriating report on levelling up found that “Overall, progress towards levelling up has been glacial – and, on many metrics, the UK as a whole has gone into reverse”.


The political challenge for universities is that they cannot ignore big policy ideas. The reason why so many university documents, programmes, and funding calls, promised to level up their region, the country, digital infrastructure, lab spaces, and almost everything else, is that they want to be part of a wider mission to make the country better.

However, if a flagship policy does not succeed they are then understandably sceptical about rowing in behind the government’s next big idea. Levelling up fits nicely within a university’s civic, research, and skills missions, but not every economic policy is so clear cut.

Labour has unceremoniously binned the levelling up phraseology, though many of its principles can be found throughout the manifesto. In its place sits a new buzzword: securonomics

Securonomics represents a succinct articulation of the worldview of the likely next Chancellor, Rachel Reeves. But like with levelling up, it is the principles which sit behind it rather than the word itself that is most important to understand.

Securonomics is not exclusively about growth or regional economies, areas universities are well versed in, but achieving the right balance between global and local economic activity and in doing so enhancing the UK’s capacity to cope with external economic shocks. Or as DK put it for Wonkhe

Securonomics can also be seen (though I doubt Reeves would put it quite like this) as a refocusing on the nation state as a unit of analysis. National systems, national productivity, indeed national infrastructure, is seen as ever more important.

The nation state as the main focus of attention is not a rejection of levelling up but an acknowledgement that regional strength is part of national sovereignty. Securonomics isn’t about protectionism but it does acknowledge that globalisation has its limits. It isn’t about the UK going alone but it is about the UK being more self sufficient. And it is an economic theory made real through on-shore supply chains, national infrastructure, inward investment, and all kinds of fiscal devices the government has not routinely engaged the university sector with.

It is impossible to level up the country without universities. It is less clear cut how universities contribute to a more self-sufficient economy. And in some places like domestic and international funding partnerships, or in the recruitment of international students, partners, and funders, securonomics may even present awkward challenges on the trade offs between global ambitions and domestic expectations.


Universities should probably avoid the temptation to relabel everything they do as being about economic security. There are some things they do which are about economic security, and that’s important to share, but securonomics may not last as a piece of political rhetoric and its demise would mean an awful lot of press releases and funding bids would have to be rewritten.

Instead, there is an opportunity for universities to consider how their work aligns to the principles of securonomics if not its label. It means taking a step back from the centre of the economic picture but instead lightly reminding, cajoling, and pushing the idea that universities are central to the UK’s national success.

Supply chains

Reeves’ diagnosis is that global supply chains are more vulnerable than had been historically supposed. Covid-19, global conflicts, Brexit, and the emergence of a multi-polar global race for economic supremacy, has rendered the assumption that the more globalised an economy is, the better it will perform, to be fragile.

Universities are not immune to these shocks. Currency crises and conflicts are directly impacting who can live, work, and study in the UK. The UK’s R&D base was harmed by the delayed association to Horizon Europe. And the UK’s relationship with China – including the role international students play- will be one of the biggest determinants of the future of the UK’s international innovation economy.

There is an opportunity for universities to discuss the resilience of the sector within a globalised context in a more sophisticated way. This becomes possible with a government focussed on national strength through economic security.


The fundamental assumption of securonomics is that the UK can be more economically independent than it is today. The UK is not the military force it once was. Growth over the past decade has been slow. And, fundamentally, the UK is a service economy which is reliant on the international movement of goods and people. Securonomics, if it is to work, must therefore also be about building a different kind of economy in the UK.

This rebalancing will run through Labour’s industrial strategy. As the party’s current industrial policy states

[…]Britain has acutely felt the dangers of being overexposed to international events. Building our national resilience to future shocks, such as food supply and access to core technologies, ensures that while we look outward to the world, we also ensure our safety and security.

This exposure is because of weaknesses in the UK’s economy. Too many regions are less productive than comparator nations and the UK’s manufacturing base has been in gradual decline since the 1980s. While high-end R&D is a strength of the UK’s, the success in which this is translated into the real economy is mixed.

The challenge for universities is not to fundamentally change mission or language but to use the securonomics framework as an opportunity to help a new government bring forward impactful mechanisms to do the things they have always wanted to. Help grow regional economies, put more research into the foundational economy, and in turn grow the UK’s economy.

All the while, the questions about the role universities play in national security will not go away. Universities will have to walk a tightrope between growing the UK’s economy through its exports, partnerships, and knowledge exchange work, while not inadvertently diminishing the UK’s competitive advantages in research.

The day job

The bit that is often overlooked as it is unglamorous is to continually make the case for the things universities are already doing that support this agenda. The day to day work of growing the UK’s skills base, supporting businesses, spinning-out companies and developing IP, all make the UK more self-sufficient through growing its own knowledge economy.

Should a new Labour government be elected there will be a rush by businesses, the public sector, and civic actors of all kinds to demonstrate how their work aligns with the new party in charge. The university sector may get the most impact from taking a moment, waiting until the dust settles, and making the case about how what it already does is improving the UK’s economy and in doing so making the nation more secure.

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