Successful devolution isn’t possible without universities

Katy Shaw sets out the possibilities for deep, mature and expansive partnerships between universities and their regions

Katy Shaw is professor of 21st-century writing and publishing at Northumbria University and director of the UKRI/AHRC Creative Communities programme

Mayoral combined authorities (MCAs) are legal bodies set up to enable two or more councils to collaborate and take collective decisions in their areas.

Although each has a different level of powers according to the maturity of their devolution deals – ranging from the most mature like greater Manchester Mayoral Combined Authority, to the much newer York and North Yorkshire Combined Authority – they each deliver a different menu of devolved budgets and policy making potential for a range of important areas including skills, culture, health and transport .


By embedding themselves in decentralisation of our English regions, universities can enhance profile, drive partnership and add value through stepping up to reap both the responsibilities and the rewards that devolution affords.

Universities can get involved with their local MCA at the point of inception, as prospective places begin to develop and bid for devolution, or they can engage with so called deeper devolution agreements as their combined authorities evolve and onboard new powers and budgets.

Practically, universities can bring a wide range of tools to help inform devolved governments. They can help drive skills, productivity, growth, train new talent and connect expertise to opportunity. Universities can inform new combined authorities in decision making on where to target activity, they can convene complicated cross-sector politics within a place and develop cross-cutting complementary activity.

Universities can also lean in on accountability, offering scrutiny and governance support; they can offer intellectual capacity to free up headspace in combined authorities to think about how to tackle wicked problems and opportunities; they can support the task of setting up a new bureaucracy from scratch through shared services; and they can offer much needed advocacy in communicating a single shared strategy for selling place – whether to prospective investors or to prospective students in a way that is consistent and evidence-based.

This structural support is especially important in helping to establish newer MCAs which are developing in areas of identified inequality. For such regions, the assistance of their local university is vital in helping to quickly build capacity so they can quickly deploy their powers and lead strategy in a way that is efficient, networked and reduces risk.

The North East

The North East Combined Authority (NECA) is one of the most expansive in the country, with a geographic footprint similar to that of Wales. It is so large it covers the universities of Northumbria, Newcastle, Sunderland and Durham.

Delivering deeper devolution depends on the four universities coming together to forge new civic relations to create a decentralisation of power that is driven by innovation and creates investable propositions for inclusive growth.

For example we are co-developing investment funds that will shape needs and priorities of our places. At Northumbria we are aligning our academic portfolio with industry, we are developing partnership with arts organisations to ensure everyone has access to creativity and the arts, our health partnerships are helping people live longer healthier lives, and we are turning our shared capacity to inform capacity at every stage.

This only works because the function of universities in devolution is centripetalism in action. We attract excellence, investment, and we share best practice which in turn enhances the agency of our areas. We are the ballast through which a deeper devolution of conflicting geographies can be drawn together through shared missions.

Deeper devolution

The path to deeper devolution is not simple. Not all devolved areas are devolved equally. Powers are different from place to place. And the focus around city regions means the full benefits of devolution are yet to be unlocked in many countryside and coastal communities.

Current financial settlements are not large enough to match the ambitions of MCAs. Politically, there is not a cross-party consensus on how devolution should develop and each party manifesto for the forthcoming election offers a different plan for what happens next. In practical terms, the path to further devolution also still depends on areas proving they can deliver projects, programmes, and funds, effectively.

Labour has indicated it would seek to “complete the devolution map” by extending devolution. The approach so far suggests that the party is open to innovating in current devolved powers as well as extending the number of combined authorities.

None of this will be possible without universities. From the most mature combined authorities to those that have just come into existence they will not succeed without connecting to universities to improve regional performance.

For universities, this may mean a future case for the devolution of higher education policy to a local level. Better connecting higher skills to existing devolved adult skills budgets, such a move would enhance the lifelong offer of local education infrastructure, encourage reciprocal governance, and create the responsive provision of skills for local opportunities. Connecting our universities to the needs and opportunities of devolved contexts means bringing people together in a convening role to help shape this learning process and to stimulate activity in the economy of a place.

Universities and mature devolution

The coproduction of place is core to creating change. For universities, this means unlocking the ivory tower and making our campuses and talent porous to devolved settings.

Because trailblazer deals and deeper devolution are rolling out to different areas at different speeds, everyone is looking and learning from each other and to better connect evidence about what works where.

Organisations like the Civic Universities Network, the Local Government Association, Universities UK and APPG for Universities are helping to share some learning but there remains profound variation in the civic literacy and strategy across universities today. The best relations are equitable, embedded and co-productive; the weakest are performative partnerships, based on dual branding that betrays a persistent power imbalance between town and gown.

Keynes famously said the economy works on the basis of animal spirits.

The devolution university challenge is how we create thriving places that are empowered to tell their own story and develop their own imagination about who they want to be. Universities are uniquely placed to help build, reinforce and maintain confidence in a place, to integrate systems to tackle inequality, to open doors to new actors in innovation.

This means universities coordinating their policy levers, co-authoring a story about where their place needs to go in future with local partners and having conversations with their communities about what good looks like.

Civic mission is not a challenge that be tackled in isolation: there must be a compulsion on universities to engage with the environment of devolution, to co-create with combined authorities and to invest in place making through meaningful civic strategy to ensure that our graduates, research and cross-sector relationships are fit for purpose now, and in the future.

3 responses to “Successful devolution isn’t possible without universities

  1. Many good points here, but does it strike anyone else as curious that a discussion of devolution and universities omits, apart from the familiar use of Wales as a measure of geographical area, any reference to the accumulated experience of the Devolved Nations?

  2. Excellent article.
    Ivory tower unlocking is happening and I’m keen to see more of it.

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