David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

Levelling up is one of the current government’s flagship priorities, and as such the Levelling up the United Kingdom white paper, fronted by levelling up secretary Michael Gove, has been hotly anticipated.

Levelling up can be broken down into two facets: expansion of opportunity, economic growth and productivity in the regions where these have historically been lower, and the narrowing of gaps between the most deprived and the most affluent regions.

The baseline policy analysis is that historical factors (including a shift from technical to higher education) have left some regions and areas stuck in a self-reinforcing cycle of stagnation and low growth, with a well-established impact on health, crime, wellbeing, and education outcomes.

Whereas other places with a rich mix of physical capital (transport, housing, digital connectivity), human capital (knowledge, skills), intangible capital (intellectual property, innovation architecture, R&D), financial capital, institutional capital, and social capital, have benefitted from the reinforcing interaction of these capitals to move ahead, economically and culturally.

The role of public policy in left behind places, the white paper argues, is therefore to:

  • Grow the private sector to improve pay, productivity, jobs etc
  • Spread opportunity and improve public services
  • Restore a sense of community and local pride
  • Empower local leaders

And there’s a fascinating assessment of the circumstances in which local growth policies tend to work, drawing on international examples, which seasoned observers of the current administration might perceive some problems. Local growth policies tend to work best when:

  • They have longevity – they are sustained, and consistent, over decades or more
  • Policy and delivery are coordinated over multiple policy areas: transport, education, skills, health, business, finance, and so on
  • They are aligned with local empowerment and decision-making
  • They are rigorously monitored and evaluated
  • There is transparency and accountability

In fairness to Gove and his department, the policy proposals contained in the white paper do make a valiant attempt to meet these criteria. But the scarcity of “new money” to fund the plans, and the political fragility of the current Prime Minister have already fostered scepticism about the sustainability of the levelling up policy project.

The white paper sets out twelve “missions” each to be achieved by 2030, addressing living standards, transport infrastructure, digital connectivity, primary education, health, wellbeing, pride in place, housing, crime, and local leadership.

Of primary interest to Wonkhe readers are the missions on research and development (R&D) and skills. On R&D the goal is for domestic spending outside the south east to increase by 40 per cent, with the intent of leveraging twice as much again in private sector investment.

On skills, the goal is for 200,000 more people to complete high quality skills training annually by 2030 – a goal that, as Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes has pointed out, would replace only about a quarter of the adult learning places cut since 2010, such has been the decimation of the sector over the last decade.

All these missions are to be underpinned by an investment in data collection, publication, and analysis, to inform decision-making,  improve accountability, and support greater evaluation and experimentation in the “what works?” spirit of policymaking. The government will oblige itself to produce a statutory annual report on progress against the levelling up objectives, and will convene a levelling up advisory council – including University of St Andrews principal Sally Mapstone, former Ulster University deputy vice chancellor research and impact Cathy Gormley-Heenan, and Alison Wolf.

With great power comes great responsibility

It would have been unexpected to find universities prominently discussed within such a wide-ranging policy document. But higher education policy watchers could reasonably have expected to find reference to a role for universities in local skills provision, and in locally focused research and development.

It would also have been reasonable to bet on some consideration given to the role universities play in supporting local schools and colleges, and to a higher education provider as a major local employer offering well paid and skilled work.

Yet while there are scattered references to the positive role that the UK’s universities can play in levelling up, sector observers might be disappointed not to see a greater role and responsibility for the sector articulated as part of the agenda.

It’s odd, because we know Michael Gove gets it. The very best way to level up a locality is to build a university in it. In one fell swoop you have skilled employment, a pool of graduates, an injection of money (student spending, salaries) into the local economy, research power, and (eventually) civic pride. We know he gets it because he admitted as much at Conservative Party Conference – at a Policy Exchange event, when asked whether he would back new universities in towns such as Grimsby, Doncaster and Thanet he said: “Yes, I agree. It may well be that the institution you attend is called a college rather than a university.”

To be fair he went on to draw a quality bar and riff on the hermeneutics of Spiderman, but the question did tap in to an idea that has long been understood by those responsible for regional and local development. Peterborough, after all, is delighted to get a new university. We’ve seen similar moves led by the government in the creation of the University of Cumbria – as Martin Harris put it:

The principal purpose of the new university, especially in its distributed form, would be to improve opportunities for Cumbrian residents, whether school leavers or older, and for Cumbrian employers in both the private and public sectors. This will also be the prime motive for investment.

With the Office for Students set up, in part, to expand the scope and thus location of higher education in England it would not be difficult to imagine a world where the regulator took place-based issues into account when evaluating proposals to join the funded sector. You could imagine facilitating this with a place-based funding stream encouraging and rewarding the development of provision by existing providers in underserved areas. Both these moves would also meet growing demand for university places.

But when it comes to the crunch, recognition of some new skills-based models at NMITE and University Academy 92, leads us directly to a promise, not actively to establish new higher education providers in places without them, but to:

[W]ork with the OfS to reform barriers to entry for the HE sector, so that new high quality providers can open across England.

Civic and skills

On p196 we see a promise to take:

major steps to strengthen and improve the institutions which provide skills training, especially those which are locally accessible, to enable people to upskill and progress without leaving their communities.

Very sensible stuff, and all backed by the international and statistical evidence presented in the opening chapters. So we get a re-announcement of the Further Education Capital Transformation Programme, and a plug for Institutes of Technology (including a promise of further details of potential Royal Charters to come in the spring).

If you were looking for some more Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) detail in this paper, you’ll be disappointed here too. The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill is “laying the groundwork” for the LLE, which is a charming way of saying that the bill is not actually delivering anything that makes the LLE work. And there’s no indication of the timeline for the LLE, either the consultation on the detail, or the bill that would enact it.

Of the twelve missions advanced by the white paper only one deals with skills. But the 200,000 number does not include any form of higher education in the target (p27 of the technical annex). There is a combined measure of achievements at levels four and five across HE and FE on the way, so in future the government will explore adding this to the headline metric. But for now, a growth in the higher education population would risk the government missing this target – not a good look.

With a hat tip to the Civic University Network there’s an endorsement of universities regional role with:

HE institutions have a vital part to play in supporting regional economies, as significant local employers and through their role as anchor institutions supporting regional collaboration.

Then there’s a mention of the planned changes to access and participation plans and promote “true social mobility” primarily through raising attainment in schools.

Research: in development

Surely we’ll find something on research that is linked to universities. In the Commons, after all, Gove promised increased R&D spending directed towards “excellent institutions” in the North and Midlands. The paper itself promises that – in areas like net zero – £7 in every £10 will be spent outside of London and the South East.

The biggest announcement in research is an extra £2.5bn for Innovate UK between 2020-21 and 2024-25 (p172). 55 per cent of the previously announced general research uplift managed by the Department for Business and the Industrial Strategy will, by 2024-25, be spent outside of London and the South East – a target monitored via new sub-national data on research funding. This does cover UKRI funding, but also infrastructure expenditure from BEIS, and other R&D programmes.

BEIS will make levelling up an objective of its research investment strategy and UKRI itself gets a new objective:

Deliver economic, social, and cultural benefits from research and innovation to all of our citizens, including by developing research and innovation strengths across the UK in support of levelling up.

And will take account of local growth criteria and impacts in fund design, along with involvement in a wider list of very sensible joined up government type activity.

A £100m pilot of three new “innovation accelerators” in Manchester, Glasgow, and the West Midlands will build on local strengths to develop – in partnership between government, business, and research performing organisations – plans and “long-term partnerships”. Delivered by UKRI and Innovate UK, there is a complementarity to the Strength in Places Fund programme.

Other departments also fund university research – from the Health budget comes an extra £30m over five years to NHS/university partnerships, and a promise that the new (September 2022) contracts for clinical research facilities will go at least half to organisations outside of Oxford, Cambridge, and London. And at MoD the actual UK ARPA (the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) will launch a regional hub in Newcastle.

This is all worthy stuff – but anyone expecting a major rebalancing of research funding in the UK will be disappointed.

All about that evidence base

I can forgive the people developing these plans for not being aware of the evidence for the value of universities in “levelling up” because it’s right the way back in chapter one – along with the magnificent Figure 1.1, which lists the largest cities in the world since 7,000BC as featured in a Guardian article.

If you ignore charms like that we learn that the disparity between regions in the UK does not compare well internationally. However clusters of high industrial activity – which correlate with economic value-added – often surround higher education providers. We learn:

The UK’s universities and HE institutes, as well as institutions such as innovation catapults and knowledge transfer networks, help companies develop and commercialise cutting-edge products and services, boosting jobs, productivity, incomes and international competitiveness.

And that strong, well-functioning, institutions (like universities) drive economic development by enhancing capability and capacity in a local area.

A series of fascinating choropleths includes consideration of the role of higher education in generating intellectual property, and focusing research and development. But the share of people moving between areas – seeking employment or training – is almost entirely linked to universities.

Thirty-five percent of graduates have moved from the Travel To Work Area they lived in at age 16, compared to 15 per cent of non-graduates. Research from the Centre for Cities is used to illustrate institutional and degree classification factors in this migration – first-class graduates (be they from the Russell Group or elsewhere) tend to migrate to London – Russell Group graduates overall tend to avoid small and medium urban areas. It’s not a picture as stark as is sometimes painted (see the IFS charts on page 91) but there is a London effect – in policy analysis we have often noted how this interacts with salary and skill gradients.

Graduates are generally more likely to move – those over 30 with children do head for the leafier suburbs, for instance – though socio-economic background and earnings also have a role here. Graduates also move more as variance the graduate employment rate rises.

And boom!, there we have it. Graduates who don’t move to more productive areas are more likely to be working below their productive potential (p94). If only someone could tip off the Office for Students before they build perverse incentives into the regulatory system.

Given all this evidence, where is the policy?

NAO here’s the thing

In the space before the delayed publication of the White Paper, we had a chance to peruse a very timely report from the National Audit Office – Supporting local economic growth. Here it transpires that the government in England had spent £18bn trying to stimulate local growth between 2011 and 2020, without much in the way of impact.

Why not? Well, poor monitoring and evaluation, and unclear objectives. If we don’t know exactly what it is we are trying to do, we are unable to monitor whether it is working and decide at the end whether it was worth it. It’s a simple point that you honestly pick up on day one of any project or programme management course – know what you are doing and evaluate whether you have done it. DLUHC – and various predecessor bodies did not do this. Instead evidence of “what works” largely draws on external, international, sources.

There are also strong words on cutting across existing structures – local education partnerships, for instance, are very much cut out of the development of the proposed local skills improvement plans, despite having spent many years doing similar things. This is a point that came up multiple times in debates linked to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. Again and again, stuff hasn’t joined up where it could and should.

The NAO concludes:

This reduces our confidence that the interventions will have the best possible chance of delivering value for money. In view of this, it is even more important that the Department should follow through rapidly on its recent commitments to improve measurement and evaluation in local growth.

Thinking about public policy

The white paper takes issues of definition and description seriously – the larger, and more rewarding part, of this document would make for an excellent academic survey on the topic of regional disparities. I am surely not alone in detecting the influence of long-time Gove hero Michael Barber in the analysis of the current data shortcomings and the need for clarity of targets and consistency of monitoring. There are also some steps towards better co-ordination – but as we have seen in contrasting DLUHC and OfS policy, there is a lot that could be done to improve this.

The approach is rich in process and structures and while there is an understanding of the need to simplify a complex and multi-actor policy this doesn’t quite come through. This government has often been guilty of imposing new regimes rather than fixing old ones, and there is a lot of that here too. Resuscitating the former Civil Service Training College/National School of Government as a new Leadership College for Government is good news if it supports the skills growth that allows departments and other bodies to move out of London – but it does rather throw light on the foolishness of the initial decision to disband the predecessor in 2012.

On devolution too, there are echoes of history, alongside a detailed list of what kind of authorities can expect what kind of powers. Forget contributing to a Local Skills Improvement Plan, for instance, if you are merely a group of local authorities rather than a top tier county council or similar.

Bits of the old, Greg Clark Industrial Strategy rub shoulders with remnants from the Coalition era (the UK infrastructure investment bank). The unit for future skills is present, but we learn little about how and where it would work.

Though this paper works as a high level survey of the problem to which levelling up is the solution – it has less to say about the design of the solution, and almost nothing to say about the institutions that can play such powerful roles in delivery. It has the intellectual scaffolding of a major intervention into regional policy, but as later chapters show it doesn’t manage to back that up.

2 responses to “What’s in the levelling up white paper for universities?

  1. I have to agree with Justine Greening that this is a good start. I have lived in Tower Hamlets in East London for over 20 years and have seen a radical transformation of the area, largely accomplished by joining things up under a mayor who pushed things through (although I would also like to point out that mayors can be deeply imperfect, and that you do of course need funding). I have family in Bradford, and it’s obvious that the poverty of local opportunity is very different to London. I very much want the same for them, perhaps without the significant increase in house prices.

    Universities feature heavily in this paper as research engines, but less so as the places that provide the workforce necessary to drive through the educational and health outcomes outlined in the paper. I could only find two mentions of nursing education – one not in context of university study and one in a general ambition to train new registrants. I also found several mentions of teachers, but only in context of retaining the best. Nursing and teaching give a large number of people the opportunity to train and remain in place, so this struck me as odd, unless the strategy is to train teachers and nurses in other settings? Or just live with current training arrangements?

    As an American, I was also struck by the reference to MIT-Boston and Stanford-Silicon Valley as the models to follow. MIT and Stanford are two of the most influential research universities in the world. If the focus is to be outside of the Golden Triangle, I might suggest that there are better models in the US, such as the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina – not to say that work shouldn’t be done to level up the prestige of HEIs outside of the Golden Triangle and Edinburgh to a higher global standard.

  2. Being my usual cynical self this looks very much like an attempt to consolidate the CONservatives in areas that were previously LIEbour, “How do you know a politician is lying?” “Their lips are moving” (with apologies to Max Headroom).

    In my tours of the regions only a very few OLD Universities are rich enough through often centuries old endowments to not need a leg up in this area, though being money grubbing and wanting a share of the pot along with being the alma mater of many ‘professional’ politicians they’ll probably demand (and get?) an excessive share. And that’s going to be the hardest part to deal with, funding education at all levels to enable those with the ability to benefit to do so, not everybody has the ability, and with the continuing drive to teach to the lowest ability in schools with abandoning streaming now becoming policy in some parts of the world it’s going to get even harder.

    As for moving government departments out of London wholesale, that doesn’t work too well in the short term, the ongoing though improving mess that is the DVLA (started in 1969) is a good example of just how long such things can take to get anywhere near a reasonably workable solution.

    I shall watch with interest to see if the CONservatives can improve things. We are indeed “cursed to live in interesting times”.

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