There was a time when you could level up everything.
Whether it was “ex-industrial areas, deprived towns, and rural and coastal communities” or more broadly the whole UK. Any noun no matter how concrete or abstract could be levelled up; health, economy, opportunity, education, access to youth provision, the North, London, Weston-Super-Mare, smoking prevention, the BBC license fee, capital gains tax, and so on and so on.
This was good for a time, a line to include in every university funding bid to central government, a soundbite, a predicate without a subject that could apply to everything and nothing all at once.
On the release of the Levelling Up White Paper we have, for the first time, a clear idea of what levelling up is and could be. It is the description of a bundle of social, economic, cultural, and educational levers, which makes places nicer to live and more prosperous. We will know these measures work when, as Boris Johnson says in the foreword to the paper, we have “[broken] that link between geography and destiny.”
How do you break that link? Through the delivery of 12 missions by 2030 through things like improving infrastructure, health and places, reducing crime, and improving local leadership. The way in which these will be delivered will not be easy, but these details are for another time or indeed another Parliament.
Although widely derided for its overuse of historical references, it is nonetheless wide-ranging in the ideas it borrows from. It is absent of some of the parochial boosterism that could have defined levelling up as just more nice things in places that might vote Conservative. It is not a list of supply-side measures, small projects without a link to an overarching framework, or a long list of hobby horses from government departments. In swimming through its 297 pages you catch glimpses of the work of Rachel Wolf in its emphasis of clean streets, reducing crime, and making places better to live.
There are delivery bodies any New Labour minister would have loved; the resurrection of New Public Management in promoting choice and competition through more information; and a fiscal responsibility to be shared with local government in return for streamlining, taking new powers, and greater accountability.
There is something in here for everyone and yet it still feels like something is missing.
As people who work in higher education, we are interested in addressing inequalities. Primarily, we do this through our research, education, outreach, and through our work as anchor institutions. Yet, the role of universities as employers, business starters, funders, spin-outers, and big clunking drivers of economic activity is underpowered. The R&D increase announced in recent spending reviews is brilliant, the rebalancing of funds away from the South East is sensible if modest, but I am not sure this is the main issue.
And as we think of the people we work with, teach, and collaborate with, levelling up has a spatial dimension to it, but surely it has a generational one too. And, if higher education is anything, it is a promise that your life will be better than had you chose not to participate. In the weeks following the freezing of the student loan repayment threshold, heading toward a national insurance rise, against the long-term scarring effects of graduating in difficult economic circumstances, sometimes levelling up requires blunt, enormous, and politically difficult, transfers of wealth.
This is perhaps where the problem is. If the message is that levelling up is about rebalancing, if it is truly a tool for a different economy, then it requires huge fiscal transfers to do this. This would not only mean going even further with R&D rebalancing but political measures of deep unpopularity. It is possible to imagine some of the far-reaching policies generational levelling up in the context of higher education would need. Driving up wages to lower the RAB charge. Making the student loan repayment threshold higher and in doing so making the whole system more expensive. Asking the Office for Students to apply stringent tests of geographical need to capital and recurrent funding. And dozens more besides.
It feels like a missed opportunity to join up. For example, a more skilled workforce with areas is of a laudable aim. But without local control over skills budgets, mechanisms for universities to work with areas in defining R&D priorities, it won’t lead to a coherent economic picture. And yes, innovation zones are a good thing, freeports might improve economic outputs, but it won’t be enough on its own. We could go on. Retaining graduates is not only just about jobs but the sense somewhere is great to be. Private partners are attracted not only by great research but joined-up policies over land, innovation, and workforces. Skills development is not only about new schemes but certainty over existing ones like the desire to continue supporting an ever-popular higher education sector.
The Levelling Up White Paper has some good and even great proposals within it. It would represent some of the most far-reaching measures of devolved power and funds we have ever seen. However, unless these initiatives are connected up using institutions like universities to join these parts into coherent devolved long-term funded plans, they risk never being more than the sum of their parts.