“Levelling up’ has become synonymous with the Johnson government. A hazy concept applied interchangeably across policy areas to speak to voters in new Conservative constituencies, the phrase has taken on new significance in the wake of Covid-19.
While place-based policy has been gathering momentum for some time, the adoption of a regional approach to tackling the pandemic and the economic and social impact of Covid-19, which continue to be keenly felt, have brought the importance of nuanced policy informed by regional insights and the interplay of regional and national actors into sharp relief.
Despite decades of regional policy, the UK remains one of the most economically imbalanced countries in the OECD area and history suggests that the economic shock of the Covid-19 pandemic will exacerbate these inequalities; a point highlighted by a group of northern Conservative MPs last week.
As levelling up becomes more important, it is essential that greater clarity is established. A recently published report by PACE, a new regional think tank in Tees Valley, argues that though levelling up is a fuzzy concept, readings of political statements and briefings suggest several consistent and familiar themes. These include ambitions to boost manufacturing through active industrial policy, infrastructure investment and regional dispersal of civil service jobs. It may also feature a reprisal of special economic zones (SEZ).
Research and development and place
Public R&D funding is potentially one of the more interesting aspects of levelling up, especially in light of the government’s pledge to increase national spending on R&D to 2.4 per cent by 2027, including a large increase in public investment. A recent report for Nesta argues that if the government were to invest in all regions at the same level as in the South-East it would spend an additional £4 billion annually.
Previous attempts to change the way government distributes R&D money have met resistance within government, sometimes with woolly compromises, and limited success – such as the regional science and innovation audits commissioned by Jo Johnson in 2015.
Consequently, it is essential that universities help keep this discussion alive in the face of competing political priorities and inevitable counter lobbying. When new funding becomes available, local institutions working together, including mayoral combined authorities and universities with their key role in local innovation systems, are best placed to identify local specialisms and areas of potential.
In the longer term, regional partnerships including universities could look to blend R&D driven development with a parallel focus on foundational economic sectors including health, criminal justice or education, combining an opportunity to invest in local economies and address broad and persistent societal challenges such as health inequity.
Skills and place
Low skills and skills shortages are often a challenge for left behind places and often it is the issue of adult skills that remains obstinately difficult to resolve. The correlation between education and skills and economic and social prosperity is widely recognised and that is why any levelling up conversation must prioritise investment in human capital and raising educational attainment at all levels.
The Prime Minister’s recent speech on education and skills set out plans to transform the post-18 education and skills system, and investing in FE has been positioned as being central to levelling up. While investment in FE is without doubt needed, the importance of higher education in developing a skilled workforce and individuals that can successfully contribute to society is just as important. An integrated system that has the flexibility to meet regional skills needs and maximises learning opportunities, ensuring that individuals can fulfil their potential, is fundamental.
There are examples across the country of universities working collaboratively to address local skills needs. For example the Teesside University College Partnership (TUCP) has worked together for more than 20 years utilising the expertise of all partners to provide seamless pathways of employer responsive provision from levels one to seven, and a strategic skills partnership developed by the Tees Valley Combined Authority has facilitated a range of targeted skills interventions.
The government priorities of boosting productivity, improving skills and an increasing focus on research and innovation should be embodied in the levelling up agenda. But it is more than this, it is about maximising the potential of a region; ensuring individuals, industry and local communities fulfil their potential.
At a basic level, universities are large employers, their staff and students spend in the area, they are purveyors of services and goods locally and they produce highly skilled graduates.
But universities are more than centres of learning. Across the country universities already make a significant contribution to their respective regions providing support to towns and communities, aspiring to transform lives. There are numerous examples of universities working in partnership with local stakeholders to address economic and societal challenges of their regions from raising aspirations and widening participation to supporting industry and delivering innovation and research that can drive change.
For many universities a civic mission and engagement with local communities is part of their DNA. They have a wealth of experience and are pivotal to successful delivery of the levelling up agenda.
The Covid-19 crisis does not show any signs of abating soon and there is already evidence to show that it in regions already struggling, it will amplify long-standing problems.
Planning for the long term economic recovery will be a huge task, perhaps without modern precedent, and place will be vital. Solutions will need to be informed by a deep understanding of how the economic crisis will unfold differently across the country. Universities can continue to be part of the social fabric of their towns, cities and regions, providing good jobs and spending power in the local economy at a time when it is most needed.