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New Recipe, Same Ingredients? For levelling up, proof will be in the pudding

  • 23 February 2022
  • By Paul Crawshaw

This blog was contributed by Paul Crawshaw, Professor of Social Policy and Dean of the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Law at Teesside University, Middlesbrough.

On the day the eagerly-anticipated Levelling Up White Paper was published, like many across the sector I took time out to rapidly digest its key messages. I also spent some time talking to BBC News. Keen to meet people in Teesside, an area heralded as a trailblazer for levelling up, the BBC reported from Middlesbrough throughout the day, interviewing residents, local politicians and academics. The BBC interview and subsequent reflections on the paper raised two key questions for me. Firstly, will the White Paper succeed in delivering the Government’s levelling up ambitions? Secondly, what role do universities have in supporting the 12 missions that form the backbone of the paper? 

The second question is relatively easy to answer. Quite simply, universities are central to the success of levelling up. Giles Carden, Chief of Staff at Lancaster University, has recently suggested that the most striking headline for universities is Mission 2, with its focus on research and development. Similarly, Hamish McAlpine, Principal Consultant at Oxentia, wrote that most references to universities in the White Paper related to innovation and knowledge exchange, an area within which we would expect the sector to have significant impact. 

Whilst agreeing with both statements, I believe that universities have a much more expansive role to play in levelling up, a perspective continually reinforced during my nearly 25 years as a social researcher and policy academic at Teesside University (TU), an anchor institution embedded in the Tees Valley region. 

TU’s mission is to transform lives and economies and our commitment to provide industry-relevant expertise, work-ready graduates, civic value and social impact is inherent to our role as an anchor institution. Through impactful research, high-quality partnerships and delivery of outstanding learning opportunities, TU is a catalyst for positive change in the region and beyond, for example:

  • Many of our students progress into employment in public services including the NHS, social care, teaching and the police. 
  • Through our longstanding partnership with local FE colleges we are able to provide seamless career pathways for employer-responsive education and training across Tees Valley.
  • Our National Horizons Centre brings together academia and industry to provide knowledge, skills, talent and facilities pivotal to supporting the development and growth of the bio-science sector.  
  • We take a leading role in the development of a regional entrepreneurial ecosystem, delivering a range of business support interventions including scale-up initiatives and incubator facilities. 
  • Through the Middlesbrough Institute for Modern Art (MIMA), TU plays a key role in the cultural life of Tees Valley. Its Borderlands project is a ground-breaking £2 million resident-led programme set to deliver more than 200,000 creative engagement opportunities.
  • We work closely with local NHS trusts and community organisations. 
  • Our Dental and Law clinics (originally developed to support student placements) provide free treatment and advice to members of the public. 

The above list is not exhaustive but gives a snapshot of how we drive social impact, an objective shared by colleagues in our mission group, the University Alliance.

The first question is more challenging.  

Initial reaction to the White Paper has been mixed, with many critics pointing to the lack of any new policies or funding. Max Nathan has identified a number of continuities, with some as recent as Osborne’s urban development agenda and others reaching further back to Major and Heseltine. As Nathan notes, this is not necessarily a problem, rather it demonstrates learning from the past. It is the layering of the policies and encouragement of a joined-up approach that has real potential. 

When the BBC interviewed me, they were keen to push me on funding. My response, ‘it’s not just about the money’, was perhaps surprising to them, as well as many others, because, let’s face it, money will be essential for implementing the substantial range of policies needed to deliver the 12 missions. I am not saying that funding is not needed or welcomed, but rather that levelling up isn’t purely about top-line investment. For me, levelling up is more than pumping money into short-term measures, an approach I have analysed and evaluated throughout my career, beginning with the Single Regeneration Budget in the second half of the 1990s. It is also about empowering regions to deploy funds where they will have most impact, unlocking potential and talent wherever it exists and restoring civic pride. 

Ambition is key. Writing in the Guardian, Will Hutton describes how current economic and social circumstances have created a transformative moment that must be grasped: inflation at a 30 year high, falling birth rate, stagnating life expectancy, unfair life chances, growing inequality and post-Brexit pessimism. This confluence of acute economic and social challenges means that it has never been more necessary to embark upon ambitious, cross-societal and cross-government mission-led policies like levelling up. 

Along with colleagues, I have for many years pointed out that improving opportunities, reducing inequality and increasing life chances constitute difficult and complex ambitions (reflected by the sheer size of the White Paper) and there is ‘no one size fits all’ solution. As TU’s Public Affairs and Policy Manager, Dionne Lee, described in a recent blog post, empowerment and partnership are key to success, alongside grounding levelling up in the regions. 

With the above in mind, it is pleasing to see that one of the most compelling and ambitious parts of the White Paper is its commitment to cross-cutting departmental collaboration and acknowledgement that joined-up and localised policy-making capable of delivering systemic change is vital for addressing deep-seated inequalities. Empowering regions and strengthening partnerships will be intrinsic to this approach and there is much in the White Paper that I believe will help to achieve this. 

The potential for joined-up, cross-departmental working has been a frequent refrain of conversations I have had recently with our new colleagues at the Darlington Economic Campus (DEC), an ambitious relocation of key government departments to the Tees Valley. With a clear mandate to develop strategic partnerships with stakeholders and engage local communities in the policy making process, the opportunities that come with locating the DEC in the Tees Valley are manifold and could make our sub-region a paradigm for levelling up. 

Ultimately, levelling up is about providing opportunities to unlock and maximise the potential of individuals, business and regions that enable them to thrive. The use of ‘stay local go far’ (a principle and vision for social mobility that we at TU have promoted for some time) in the first line of the ministerial foreword further emphasises this point, and indeed sets the tone and ambition for the rest of the White Paper. 

Setting aside buzzwords and political jargon, I believe the ambition and strategic direction embedded within the White Paper are, on balance, positive. There have been many previous attempts to address regional inequalities (as the White Paper recognises) but the proposal is a step change from short-termism and siloed policy making. It offers an important shift in the balance of power from Westminster to the regions, providing a blueprint to work from in the future. In Teesside, there is a buzz and an anticipation that we could be on the cusp of real change. Levelling up won’t be easy, but this time I’m hopeful.

On Thursday 10 March 2022 HEPI and Advance HE are jointly hosting a webinar on equality and diversity. To register your place, please click here.

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1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    An impressive article in support of TU’s approach to levelling up, which illustrates the need for developing more bespoke and appropriate “standards” for judging the success of individual universities and moving away from one size fits all.

    I was born in Hartlepool and lived in the North East for my first 18 years until attending University in Manchester and have lived and worked in London since 1973. I have seen TU go from strength to strength since it was set up but the North East itself has remained one of the “less prosperous” UK regions for over 70 years. Part of the prosperity challenge is linked to the way we measure GDP in £ sterling which places low cost, low wage areas at a real disadvantage.

    The “relocation of key government departments to the Tees Valley” could be the catalyst that fast tracks prosperity for the region by introducing more well paid workers and jobs to the area.

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