Martin Jones: ‘Levelling up is so relative. It is a classic political faux pas’

The next vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University sets out his views on levelling up, metrics, Stoke-on-Trent and the prospect of mergers

“Who wants to be a vice-chancellor in this hostile, toxic environment?” chuckles Prof Martin Jones. “I was asked this question at my job interview, although not quite so bluntly; it’s a typical first interview question – ‘why do you want to be a vice-chancellor here and now?’ – to which I flippantly added, ‘…in this hostile, toxic environment’.”

The breezy sardonicism masks a more serious attitude – but the vice-chancellor-designate of Staffordshire University never lets conversation become too stuffy for long. Appropriately enough for the university that uses the tagline, ‘Proud to be Staffs’, Martin is a born-and-bred local. Six members of staff went to primary school with him in Staffordshire. He bumps into students with familiar names that turn out to be the sons and daughters of his old classmates. Leading this institution is a significant source of pride – perhaps more so than any other university would be.

That he should joke about it perhaps reflects that leadership in HE now is more challenging than ever. The spotlight is harsher; the discourse coarser; the challenges multiplying.

All vice-chancellors bring their own set of skills: it is less common for one to come from a discipline where their research may shape decision-making. Martin is an economic geographer – a field he thinks lends him perspicacious insight into levelling up and place, which could be handy for a sector keen to lend a hand to ministers eager to deliver election promises.

“I think being an economic geographer, focusing on placemaking, puts me in an ideal position because what I’m trying to do in this role is improving links between economic development, skills, social capital and social mobility,” Martin says. “I’m privileged because I feel like I’m sat in a giant fish tank watching my research going around. As the incoming vice-chancellor, I’m going to be an economic geographer doing it for real. I think I landed in the right place at the right time.”

‘Doing it for real’ has taught Martin something about his subject: “The way things actually work on the ground is a damn sight more messy than I thought, especially when you sit down around a table.” He used to write papers on local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), and now he directs one. The private sector is no more of a homogenous group than HE, he reflects. Success often rests on personal connections. He admits that, as an academic, he considered things in the abstract and now must appreciate “the complex world” of local authorities, chambers of commerce and LEPs. It is perhaps a cliché that academics are a little unworldly, steeped in theory and not practice, but it is a cliché that Martin accepts he once fitted.

As the incoming vice-chancellor, I’m going to be an economic geographer doing it for real. I think I landed in the right place at the right time

Related comment: ‘Students and academics cannot sit in isolation from business’, says Prof Martin Jones

So, where does Staffordshire University – a modern higher education institution (HEI) in an infamously deprived part of England – find itself as it heads into the future? HE participation figures for 18-year-olds in Stoke-on-Trent, where the university’s principal campus sprawls, are half the national average. Martin reflects that if graduates are expected to pay more towards their tuition fee loans in the future, his university – perhaps more so than others – will need to “make it perfectly clear to learners that we are good value for money”. The numbers of mature applicants dropped this admission cycle, which Martin believes results from “brand damage caused by the current government’s talk of low-value courses”. He thinks it is also down to “nervousness that university is all online when it’s not”.

Martin believes some of that brand damage has been caused by the binary drawn by political figures between HE and FE. “And we’re sat in the middle because we do vocational education in a university setting,” he says. Staffordshire University has built the Catalyst building, a home for its degree apprenticeship provision and a significant investment in this ‘middle way’ to post-18 education. “We do degree apprenticeships; we do professional training: 65% of our courses are professionally accredited,” Martin continues. “The debate has been framed as an either-or between FE and HE. The political challenge is to try and sell that to our MPs.”

'Levelling up is so relative. It is a classic political faux pas'
Staffordshire University has campus across the county – and its next vice-chancellor thinks ministers should visit to see how levelling up “could work”. Photo: © Clara Lou Photography,

Martin wants ‘levelling up’ ministers to contextualise universities in their local areas before assessing their value. He accepts there must be financial scrutiny. But how nuanced are the figures policymakers are using? Not nearly enough, in his opinion. Staffordshire sponsors 20 schools through a multi-academy trust and forms a “skills pipeline” with the sixth form colleges in the area. “There’s a bigger argument for having universities in the local economies that can’t be reduced to that paragraph in the Conservative party manifesto about value for money courses,” he affirms. “I know where it’s coming from. It is a rather brutal argument that supports certain parts of the HE sector. It is loaded towards predominantly Russell Group, where there are other reasons that folk go to university and other reasons why Russell Group graduates get good jobs as well, it’s their social networks as much as their degrees.”

The long term goal is to produce a different local economy for the people of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent

“Levelling up is so relative. It is a classic political faux pas. You cannot bring everybody up to the average because then you change all the averages,” he says, with the intonation of someone delivering a joke. It is a plea to ministers and journalists to look beyond a few figures to understand the challenge and the solution in a place like Stoke-on-Trent.

Improving graduate employment and retention requires Staffordshire University to address “the connectivity issue” between students and local jobs and intervene in the local economy “and start to change the matrix and the makeup of jobs”, Martin explains.

Staffordshire University sits in one of 20 University Enterprise Zones and oversees “hatchery-style” collaborations with local microbusinesses that benefit from access to the university’s research hardware. Martin says the next stage is to better support graduates to start-up enterprises on-site, modelled on the Launchpad model used so successfully at Falmouth University: “Having looked at some of our graduate data, we could do better here.”

“Over time, the university will start to disturb the local economy,” he continues. “The labour market in Staffordshire needs to be challenged. Because I am an economic geographer by trade, I want to change the local economy for the better: that means inspiring school kids to come to Staffordshire University to get the relevant skills for jobs in the future. But we also want to be involved in manufacturing those jobs. The long term goal is to produce a different local economy for the people of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent.”

Martin points to a recent TV news piece as proof: a few weeks ago, Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, visited a sixth form college in Stoke-on-Trent, where the party lost two seats in 2019. Sir Keir asked students whether they would leave the local area to find work, “and 95% of them put their hands up,” describes Martin. “This is the challenge for universities like mine,” he adds somewhat solemnly.

'Levelling up is so relative. It is a classic political faux pas'
Stoke-on-Trent sits at the heart of the Staffordshire Potteries – and its university continues some of the specialist ceramic courses that started in the town at the Central School of Science and Technology more than hundred years ago. Image via Flickr.

Martin has been at Staffordshire for four years in the post of deputy vice-chancellor. He leads academic and strategic planning, civic engagement, Staffordshire University’s Multi-Academy Trust, social and economic regeneration, research, enterprise and innovation, and digital, technical and campus infrastructure. Quite the portfolio. Before then, he was director of the White Rose Doctoral Training Centre at the University of Sheffield and pro-vice-chancellor at Aberystwyth University.

His plans for Staffordshire owe much to his predecessor and current boss, Prof Liz Barnes. Liz spoke to University Business in June about her retirement and why she thinks ministers and the Office for Students need to let HEIs get on with the job.

He wants Staffordshire University to be the best post-’92 university in the UK. Central to that aspiration is the importance of Staffordshire achieving its goal of becoming a leading digital university. His predecessor has overseen “great strides” in curriculum and student experience – but research is the next frontier, Martin summarises. He wants to improve the quality and quantity of digital research that can translate to the regional and national economy.

Staffordshire University offers several significant computing programs, including several computer games design, development and programming degrees; the new vice-chancellor wants the university to push its computing portfolio into the health and wellbeing spaces. Around 4,000 undergraduates at Staffordshire University study computation courses. It was the first UK institution to offer single-honours computing degrees. International Computers Limited (ICL), the British hardware, software and services company, had a base in Stoke-on-Trent. That company, formed by the Labour government of the 1960s, was bought by Fujitsu in 2002 – but in its 40-year history, offered Staffordshire University the local employment opportunities it needed to support its pioneering computing courses. “I want to return to those historic roots and build that portfolio,” Martin explains.

Martin hopes the government will act on the pleas for research funding from mission groups like MillionPlus. If – and it is a big if – the government achieves its goal of increasing state investment in R&D to £22 billion by 2026/27, the new vice-chancellor hopes that a useful share of that funding will reach universities through place-based, innovation-focused research funding pots. “That sort of funding is more attuned to this university than some of the pure research funding distributed through the REF [Research Excellence Framework]. We need acknowledgement of the varieties of research. Some of the applied research is less about quality papers in journals – it’s more about impact with employers. I took care of the REF submission for Staffordshire University, and I’d estimate 90% of the case studies had a civic agenda bias to them.”

Prof Mary Stuart, the vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln, another post-92 HEI, says institutions like hers can uplift deprived areas – but only if metrics, funding and policies change to support them. Prof Graham Baldwin, vice-chair of MillionPlus and the vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, told a fringe event at the Conservative party conference in Manchester that modern universities are uniquely placed to work with industry in meeting local needs.

The entire HE system is a market. Marketisation produces atomisation

Staffordshire University would benefit from more place-based research funding, Prof Martin Jones says – but will ministers hear the calls from the vice-chancellors of modern universities?
Staffordshire University would benefit from more place-based research funding, Prof Martin Jones says – but will ministers hear the calls from the vice-chancellors of modern universities? Photo: © Clara Lou Photography,

Martin’s prediction for the future? Well, alongside the maturing of online learning as a force for good in HE, he predicts the sector will see more integrations, acquisitions and mergers.

“I’m in favour of strategic alliances between universities. I was part of the Aberystwyth-Bangor strategic alliance agreed in 2011 when I worked in Wales. Leighton Andrews, the minister for education and skills in Wales at the time, said there were too many institutions and launched a regionalisation agenda for HE. I wrote the CADARN [Collaborating and Developing Across Regional Networks] strategy for North and Mid Wales between Aberystwyth University and Bangor University. The two institutions are 75 miles apart: it takes three and a half hours to drive between them on a bad day. Compare that to where we are – we’re surrounded by institutions far closer.

“I think strategic partnering between universities and FE and HE should be wider and deeper. Some brutal politics around FE mergers came through the area review, and I wouldn’t want HE to be forced down that road. I’m not talking about hard integration – I’m thinking more along the lines of how academisation has worked in the school sector. I’m trying to work through whether you can have that academisation applied to FE and HE. It is complicated, but could we have wider place-branded place-making education? There’s a fork in the road, potentially forced by changes to spending, modularisation, student finance and government priorities.”

But can universities work together, putting aside competition for students? University civic agreements – like in Manchester and Nottingham – suggest neighbouring HEIs have common ground to exploit. Could these models be the basis for something more? Martin believes so – but there is a prerequisite.

“The metrics used to measure universities are assembled and reported on an individual basis, such that we are pitched in competition with each other. The entire HE system is a market. Marketisation produces atomisation. If you look at kind of the metrics that we judged on, there’s very few or none that are partnership-based. We’re not measured on how well we collaborate with employers, civic partners, FE, HE or others. Many post-’92 universities are already deeply involved in local FE partnerships. We need nuance in those metrics if we are to develop that partnership work.

“We are a living laboratory of how a skills ecosystem works. If ministers come here, they could take a look at how levelling up might work. Higher education still has a hell of a lot to give.”

Read more: Chris Skidmore on the KEF, civic universities and levelling up

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