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The cost of living crisis meets levelling up

Ahead of the Autumn Statement Graeme Atherton surveys the state of the levelling up agenda
This article is more than 1 year old

Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), and Head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up at the University of West London

The return of Michael Gove threatens to breathe some life back into the government’s levelling up agenda.

Higher education has never been presented by the government as central to levelling up. It receives some passing mentions in the Levelling Up White Paper and all but a sprinkling of the monies so far allocated as part of the Levelling Up Fund appear to be available to higher education related projects.

However, while none of the 12 missions which are at the centre of the Levelling Up White Paper refer to higher education explicitly, one does focus on research and development.

There are also missions related to improving educational attainment at primary level and increasing the number of people completing high-quality skills training. But while the good news is that higher education may have a greater stake in levelling up than it first appears, the bad news is that whatever Gove can do, the cost of living crisis and its implications makes delivering on levelling up an even bigger challenge than before.

Mission improbable

Our recent report Mission Improbable subjected all 12 missions to an in-depth analysis looking at the evidence to establish the risks presented to each mission by the cost of living crisis. The levelling up missions are described in the White Paper as a “targeted, measurable and time-bound objective, or set of objectives, from which a programme of change can then be constructed or catalysed”. The mission that relates most directly to higher education is Mission 2 which states that:

“By 2030, domestic public investment in R&D outside the Greater South East will increase by at least 40%, and over the Spending Review period by at least one third. This additional government funding will seek to leverage at least twice as much private sector investment over the long term to stimulate innovation and productivity growth.

There is no explicit mention of higher education here. Nor does the lesser-known Levelling Up the United Kingdom: missions and metrics Technical Annex include the words higher education in association with Mission 2. It does talk extensively of the need for sustained and targeted increases in public R&D investment, moving investment away from London, Cambridge and Oxford as well as using public sector monies as a lever for private sector investment.

We found that of the 12 missions two thirds were at high risk, including mission 2. The evidence from both here and here and abroad shows that in times of recession investment in both public and private R&D goes down. Gross expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP took around 4 years to recover to the levels of 2008 after the recession of 2009. Higher inflation also damages investment in R&D. Evidence from fifteen OECD countries during the period 1981-2008 (including the UK) showed investments in R&D deteriorated during periods of high inflation. Higher interest rates will only exacerbate the challenge in growing private sector investment in coming years.

Mission impossible?

As well as Mission 2 on R&D, the missions relating to bringing the number of children achieving the expected standard of reading and writing by age 11 to 90 per cent and the increasing the number of those with high skills – defined in the levelling up metrics paper as qualification-focused 19+ further education and skills training achievement (including apprenticeships), but not higher education, also matter to HE.

The weight of evidence suggests that increased poverty and a recession will make achieving these targets nigh on impossible, especially given the distance that needs to be travelled with the school related mission. For example, less than 5 per cent of schools in the newly designated Education Investment Areas achieved the 90 per cent benchmark the last time SATs were used in 2019. Given that universities are now being told by the Office for Students to focus on raising attainment it places them central to this mission.

The higher education sector needs the government to retain its commitment to levelling up. Thus far the sector has struggled to engage with this agenda, to a large extent because the government has shown little interest in higher education but also because engagement has meant taking what we already do and re-branding it as levelling up. A more nuanced approach is needed that presses the government on the exact missions in the white paper rather than focusing entirely on what we do for certain places.

This will also allow alliances to be formed with other organisations and sectors who have an interest in different missions (there are other missions on health and pride of place as which higher education can play a big part in achieving). Given that there is no actual formal definition of what is and isn’t a levelling up area they also represent the clearest evidence of what levelling up actually means.

The cost of living crisis may be dealing another blow to levelling up but it is too important an agenda to give up on. Higher education has a huge part to play in stopping what is a mission improbable become a mission impossible.

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