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Universities must be critical delivery agents of the Levelling Up Fund

  • 15 January 2021
  • By Chris Husbands, Natalie Day & Richard Brabner

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Sir Chris Husbands and Natalie Day, Sheffield Hallam University and host of the Civic University Network, with Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP Foundation. You can find Chris, Natalie and Richard on Twitter @Hallam_VC , @natalieday1 and @richardbrabner.

The first week of 2021 was meant to feature a ‘triple-whammy’ of higher education policy announcements, with the FE White Paper, the long awaited Augar response and the TEF Review all due to land in our inboxes. Unsurprisingly, with Lockdown 3.0 and the frantic responses that followed, such documents went back on the shelf (again), awaiting that quieter window that are now so few and far between.

But one policy job that should remain high on the Government’s to-do-list is the finalisation of the prospectus for the new £4 billion Levelling Up Fund. Announced in the 2020 Spending Review, this aims to support the regeneration of towns and communities through high-value, strategic initiatives and infrastructures that have a visible impact over the next few years on people and their communities.

The impact on COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on areas which were already struggling with economic deprivation and social inequalities, so such investments are much needed. Universities are acutely aware of these struggles and many are already putting increasing energy and resource into efforts to aid the recovery and renewal of their local geographies post pandemic. With a proven track-record of delivering transformational projects that help aid regeneration, often in partnership with FE colleges, community groups, the NHS and local authorities, it is critical that universities are explicitly referenced in the Government’s guidance for the Levelling Up Fund to ensure these partnerships can be encouraged and harnessed.

There are strong synergies between the aims of the Levelling Up Fund and the recommendations from the UPP Foundation’s report on extending the civic role to post-industrial towns. In particular, the report advocates using the capacity of civic institutions to help revitalise high streets and town centres. This is a vital agenda, where universities can be critical in supporting the Government’s ambitions.

Through our work at the Civic University Network and the UPP Foundation, we understand the potential power of universities to deliver societal change, both in their immediate locality, but also through reaching out and supporting nearby towns, which might be considered higher education ‘cold spots’.

This is not about universities grabbing a slice of the levelling-up pie for their own self-interest. Many of the activities this Fund could support would be cost-neutral at best. But in the Network’s first year, we have learnt of many examples of universities working in partnership to deliver the types of impact and infrastructure that the Levelling Up Fund seeks to support. By explicitly referencing universities in the guidance, it would facilitate the extension of universities’ civic role; and with established projects and partnerships developed, universities are ideally placed to extend this further to help level-up socially and economically disadvantaged towns.

Here’s just a few examples of these transformative collaborations:

  • the Open University working with organisations and local communities, including schools and FE colleges in Wales, to use public libraries as a space for engagement activities;
  • Kingston University working with the local authority and partners to develop Re-imagining Kingston Town Centre’s Spaces and Places, a public realm strategy empowering community groups;
  • the University of Worcester leading on plans to build a university centre in Dudley, offering health care programmes, working with Dudley College and the local authority;
  • the University of Birmingham working with SMEs within Greater Birmingham and Solihull to adopt low carbon energy technologies and applications;
  • the Consortium, led by Sheffield Hallam and includingthe University of Sheffield and the Sheffield City Region Growth Hub, which enables SMEs from across the region to access a huge range of academic expertise, improving productivity and supporting economic growth;
  • the Queen Mary’s Children’s Health in London and Luton (CHILL) project, workingto improve air quality and the lung health of children, including delivering an award-winning Pollution Solution workshop to over 9,500 children; and,
  • Nottingham Trent University working in partnership with Vision West Nottinghamshire College (VWNC), to deliver higher education in Mansfield, offering finance and career support as well as integrated further and higher education pathways for the local community.

In addition to referencing universities, we would argue that the Fund’s finer print, to be outlined in the prospectus, should also focus on what local communities want from regeneration, and incentivise local and regional civic institutions, such as universities, colleges and museums to help to deliver on its objectives.

We have written to the relevant government Ministers and civil servants to seek their assurances, but we are also asking universities to reach out to their local MPs, as they will be critical allies in overseeing the direction and development of levelling up projects.

Few people will assert that the first weeks of 2021 have unfolded as they imagined. But there are some policy announcements that are too important for delay. Finalisation of the Levelling Up Fund is one of them.

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